Starting with sixth grade, my mother enrolled me in private girls’ school. I didn’t want to leave the public school but was helpless before her determination. One of the requirements of the entrance exam was to write an essay, a term and a form that were new to me. The proctor explained that I should just write a story about the assigned subject, summer vacation, I think.
The school was as awful as I’d expected, snobby and materialistic. Worst of all, the minuscule population (smaller classes! the brochure bragged) reduced to near zero the chance of my finding like-minded friends. Rather than learning to get along with others, I withdrew into myself. It wasn’t until Adrienne Rich came as an alumna to speak at an assembly that I began to believe in my own survival. A published and honored poet, rebellious and outspoken: she took my breath away. If she could survive this school with her voice intact, then I could too.
Ever since, I’ve devoured her poetry and—yes—essays, grateful for the questions she’s asked and the trails she’s blazed. This book of essays and conversations gives us her fierce and intelligent voice discussing poetry, art, women, and her own work. When she mentions that the primary motivation for her poetry is to reveal what is hidden, I am reminded of our school and our neighborhood—she grew up a block away from me—and their suffocating atmosphere of secrecy, their respectable and elite front hiding shame and abuse and prejudice.
She relates this archeological work to the study of silence, a parallel that had not occurred to me before. I’d thought about silences in women’s lives in the sense that Tillie Olsen uses, the gaps in women’s creative lives cause by the harsh demands of women’s roles in our culture. But the thought of digging into what those silences might hide is thrilling.
Rich talks about the difficulty of making poetry out of political experiences, mentioning how she learning from Yeats that it was indeed possible to do so while protesting his idea that the addition of a political dimension would make the voices of women poets harsh.
I love when she talks about how Raya Dunayevskaya’s biography identifies Rosa Luxemburg’s central relationship as being with her work. I’ve found that too many people—biographers, editors, readers—allow women only one story: a romance.
Most of all, I loved Rich’s discussion of translation, having just taken a course where I translated Italian poetry into English. She carries the idea forward into describing the essence of poetry itself: “But poetry is an art of translation, a connective strand between unlike individuals, times, and cultures.” And here she ties translation and poetry into one of my deepest values: that of creating and nurturing communities.
Despite the stereotype of the lone artist, working away in solitude, there is no doubt that the heart of it is communication. And by communicating our different realities, we come to understand and appreciate each other. In a new book club at Ukazoo Books, a group of strangers, one person asked why it seemed that people who read lots of novels tend to be liberal politically. It seems to me that the reason is precisely this appreciation of experiences foreign to our own, undermining our self-righteous conviction that everyone could be as successful as we are if they would just try a little harder. Rich says: “Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another’s experience and imaginative life. In continually rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial to the democratic vision.”
Rich is still my model and my inspiration, just as she was when I was in school. These essays help me understand why.