A first-person account of the impact of the lesbian poet

Adrienne Rich’s legacy


Adrienne Cecile Rich:
May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012

Poet, essayist, and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich, 82, died March 27, 2012, in Santa Cruz, Calif., after decades of battling rheumatoid arthritis. Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Md., to a Jewish doctor and an Episcopalian pianist. She studied poetry at home, then Radcliffe.

In 1951, gay poet W. H. Auden chose her first book, “A Change of World,” for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award. Rich’s poetry ranged from tightly corseted (“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”) to gender-queer (“Diving Into the Wreck”) to feminist Pandora’s box  (“Planetarium”) to geopolitical witness (“An Atlas of the Difficult World”).
Some of her prose classics include “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution,” “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” and “The Dream of a Common Language.”

Rich won nearly every major American poetry award, but turned down the National Medal of the Arts to protest then-Rep. Newt Gingrich’s (R-GA) campaign against NEA funding. Many male academics dismissed her work as “too angry” or “too political,” but Rich had a large and loyal public following.
Rich is survived by her partner of more than 35 years, the novelist and critic Michelle Cliff, three sons from a previous marriage, and two grandchildren.

When I was a young college student in the mid-1980s, Adrienne Rich came to speak at the University of New Orleans. I was out, proud, and well-versed in gay and lesbian history and literature, thanks to Alan Robinson’s Faubourg Marigny Bookstore.

At UNO, a small core of faculty and students was pushing for a women’s studies minor, which meant I had the opportunity to study Rich’s writing. I accepted this as normal, not revolutionary.

Today, as a poet, essayist, and writing teacher, I wake alone, my partner headed to a foreign country where the very definition of revolution is up for debate, and open my e-mail to news from Marilyn Hacker. She writes: Adrienne Rich! what a loss. I can hardly believe it.

And everything stops — making coffee, grading papers, all of it while I search the wires, which have only begun to pass the word.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them
–Adrienne Rich, “Planetarium”

Who do I call first? My mother? My college girlfriend? My poetry mentor? I don’t know where to start.

* * *

Arthritis insinuating itself by the mid-‘80s, Adrienne Rich leaned on her cane as she entered the packed auditorium. Imagine several hundred men and women turning out to hear someone whose entire life, art, and intellectual project centered on womanhood and lesbianism. It was absolutely unprecedented in the South.

Rich was not the first feminist public intellectual, nor the first lesbian philosopher, nor the only major woman poet of the 20th century. But she was certainly a, if not the, leading figure behind much of what has evolved into today’s “gender studies,” from which all too often the lesbian point of view remains conveniently ancillary, minimized, ghettoized.

After all, ladies, we are living in a post-feminist era. Implicit in that statement is the claim, “We’re done talking about all that.”

Now, Rich herself is a post-era feminist, moving outside of time, living on through her writing that was the fulcrum of an enormous cultural shift for intellectual women in this country. Rich and others reclaimed the labels, wresting power from those who would use words like “lesbian” or “dyke” or (gasp) “feminist” as interchangeable put-downs.

Rich’s quarrel with the way things were made possible our present happy situation in which we can conveniently move past “all that angry political lesbian stuff” from the ‘70s.

Now that we are “past all that,” we have a national radio commentator who has made millions off the label “feminazi,” and whose swan song was to call a young college woman, shut out of a Congressional hearing to prevent her from speaking her mind about her own body, a “slut.”

Charis Books & More is still open, yet we too often forget why it had to open in the first place.

* * *

My college girlfriend Heidi, the youngest of three adult children, cared for her schizophrenic, alcoholic mother before and after working full-time at a grocery store.

Her father, a retired Navy officer who had remarried the widow next door, didn’t see the point of paying for her education. In particular, he did not approve of her taking “women’s studies.” He favored accounting.

Therefore, she paid for school out of her minimum-wage salary. Heidi never graduated, but that one class in which we read Rich’s work carries her forward as an independent, self-sufficient woman. I believe it saved her life.

* * *

Rich was tiny, about five feet tall, and looked even tinier grasping the podium as she read. She was dead serious about signing every single person’s book in the standing-room-only crowd. But she also had a sense of humor.

“I’m sorry if this smells a little funny,” Heidi apologized, handing Rich her dog-eared copy of “Of Woman Born.”

“Really? Why is that?”

“Well, I just came here from work and I haven’t had a shower yet.”

“Where do you work?”

“Well, I work at a grocery store. I fillet fish.”

In response, this towering intellectual lifted the book to her nose, sniffed, rolled her eyes, and grinned.

Heidi hasn’t stopped telling this story since the ‘80s.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? What a woman writes about her life — which includes the life of the mind — should matter to other women.

Rich’s work mattered very much to lesbians and to our straight feminist friends, mothers, aunts, and sisters who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Charis Bookstore co-owner Sara Look, like so many others, first read Rich’s work for a women’s studies class in 1988.

“People were coming in and saying, ‘I can’t believe Adrienne Rich died,’” Look says. “It was a sad day here. I think of the moment when Audre Lorde died — I was working at Chapter 11 Books and remember seeing in Southern Voice — that’s how I found out that time. We found out about Adrienne Rich on Facebook.”

Rich’s work offered artistic, political, and intellectual sustenance that helped us survive on a daily basis.

“I feel like reading ‘On Lies, Secrets and Silence ‘changed my life. Someone else read it and said,  ‘You have to read this’ — it was the most amazing thing ever.” 

Look remembers, just as I do, and just as other lesbians will, reading Rich’s poems and essays to our lovers as part of our home life, not as homework.

“I keep thinking of moments in the ‘90s, reading Adrienne Rich out loud — thinking of all the women I did that with!”

Charis, like other feminist bookstores around the country, is planning to hold a tribute reading in memory of Rich.

Our post-soundbite world reduces everything to 140 Twitter characters, giving free passes to complex and often incorrect assumptions by talking about them in shorthand.

Rich had access to the intellectual tools and training that led her to question such lazy thinking. She inspired other women to complete, then reshape, higher education. She refused to be a good girl for the convenience of those who found their consciences publicly pricked by a lesbian, “a woman in the shape of a monster, / a monster in the shape of a woman.”

Today, “the skies are full of them.”

Goddess speed, Adrienne Rich.