Doren Robbins

A Farewell to Adrienne Rich

I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s poetry many years ago at Kenneth Rexroth’s home in Santa Barbara. I had been a poetry student of Rexroth’s, and I was visiting him on my way up to The Hoh Rain Forest in Washington. Almost immediately after I walked into his house he picked up a book set aside from his stack of mail and handed it to me, saying, “Doren, here’s a book to keep with you.” It was Rich’s major collection Diving into the Wreck. Two famous poems from it, the title poem, “Waking in the Dark,” and “Rape,” remind us that Rich was and will remain a fearless and insightful poet. But the final lines of her love poem “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)” insist on how much she will also be remembered as a loving, erotic poet:
               		your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
               		me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers    
               		reaching where I had been waiting for years for you   
               		in my rose-wet cave—whatever happens, this is. (9-12) 

AR three-part farewell #1

The “whatever happens” is not simply a carpe diem (seize the day) reference to the possibility of love or life itself not lasting––because she was and will remain one of our most fully aware political poets, the reader has to consider that she also alludes to the possible impending crisis of war, riots or environmental disaster in our everyday lives. People may not have any reason to consider whether an internationally respected poet and essayist could be taught in a community college developmental English course, especially at East Los Angeles Community College. The assumed difficulty and reputation of poetry as a “turn-off” could have made the idea of teaching Rich to developmental students absurd. Here was a class similar to ones I have taught throughout California, almost entirely made up of Hispanic, African-American, Filipino, international and poor white students, many of them high school dropouts or single parents. Rich had rejected President Clinton’s National Medal for the Arts Award for 1997, and the Los Angeles Times published an article reflecting on her rejection letter to the National Endowment for the Arts.

AR three-part farewell #2

I photocopied the article for the class to see if it might have relevance to them in a way they might not have thought about in their critical thinking before. At first they were shocked that anyone would refuse such an honor for their art; just as many of them were also shocked that one of the poems I taught them, “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)” was not a heterosexual love poem. Ironically, an award of this type in many European, Latin American, African and all Middle Eastern countries would be given for knowing how to keep your mouth shut about government corruption, racism or personal sexuality. Rich was a profound and determined First Amendment absolutist. The majority of democracy-focused citizens understand what the risk is and what the enemy is capable of. Reading the article aloud in class, right away my Developmental English students were unleashed where they weren’t aware of being manacled. The reasons behind Rich not accepting the medal are based in part on her statement that,
“Like many others, I have watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teen-age mothers, the selling of health care—public and private—to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to working and poor people.”

Toilette Stall Community College Graffiti—"demolish all hearts."

These were realities in many of my students’ lives and, though they viscerally knew from experience what she was talking about, the unleashing had to do with giving a dissident and compassionate voice to what they were made to believe they weren’t worthy to complain about in the first place.

Noting the indifference to a similar reality in France, Albert Camus stated, “I see many who fail to feel it, but I cannot envy their sleep.” Many would say Camus was appropriately condescending, especially since his statement came shortly after WWII. I don’t remember Rich condemning other poets for being unengaged or for accepting a held-hostage artistic self-suppression in their silence or narcosis before the Corporate Military World Order. She understood, as James Baldwin did, that “A person does not lightly elect to oppose society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them.” But each of them, and the inclusive democratic community they are a part of, risk being mocked and detested for their basic sense of social responsibility. Many still fail to feel it.

AR three-part farewell #3

Adrienne Rich is on a short list of poets I turn to for historical response and emotional nakedness, emotional nakedness grounded in insight. Like William Blake, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nazim Hikmet or Thomas McGrath––her historical subjects are only topical in the sense of “this is the era in which we live.” Her poetry and her identity passionately contradict Yeats’s understandably cynical and ironic lines written after WWI and the Russian Revolution: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Knowing her over the last several years of her life, the compassionate, dissident tone and the informed analysis of our conversations about urban and international crises conveyed a sense of liability, indebtedness to others, interpersonal and social, just as in her poetry she answers with conviction and elegance, or outrageous elegance about where responsibility lies. She answers. Some poets will not budge without taking on the emotional-ethical reality of “answerability” in their lives, because life is at stake, and we are imperiled if no one answers, or worse if the answer conforms to the status quo.

I was not at Adrienne’s funeral, so when I made my farewell to her the night of the Santa Cruz memorial reading in her honor, it was part of my remnant of connection to Jewish rituals. In the Jewish faith there is one lasting concept that I live with, it is referred to as Mitzvah: good deed, an act of kindness performed by or to someone; a humbly commendable or charitable act. The final mitzvah is the most important because no thanks or gratitude can be returned for it. The final mitzvah at the funeral is the shoveling or handing of earth into the grave. The last book I read by Adrienne was her book of poems, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. The night of her memorial her poetry did serve, our poetry and comments were our final mitzvah to her.

Doren Robbins is a poet, mixed media artist, and literary critic.

Two new books, (1) Apocalypse Contemporary, on Sharon Doubiago’s book Naked to the Earth.
Can be ordered from me or from the publisher.

and (2) Not Fade Away: Poetic Prose Monologues, Three Sequences, which can be ordered from the publisher and also through the author at the email address above.

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