The first time I read an Adrienne Rich poem as teenager I learned that it’s not just the “boys club” that writes poetry well. A woman can create poetry that explores personal and political attachments as well as being formally and stylistically masterful. This is the first lesson that Rich taught me. I went through school reading predominantly male authored texts. From poetry to fiction it becomes ingrained in students that the true aces of literature are men. Of course I knew women wrote – I did so myself and read other women writers avidly. But I distinctly remember reading Rich for a Transition Year class (aged 15) and shaking the dust off the old, musty views that we inherit and rarely challenge. Rich didn’t just challenge our perception of literature, politics, women, feminism and tradition; she changed it. Her explorations of identity, politics, relationships, sexuality and womanhood through skilled poetry drowned out the male voices set out in the school curriculum.
However, while I love and admire her poetry for this, it is in her prose that I learned my most valued lessons. Blood, Bread, and Poetry and On lies Secrets and Silence occupy permanent positions on my desk. Within arms reach, these collections of essays have helped my find my way through many issues, theoretical in my work and personal in my self. On the subject of identity, Rich is exemplary. the best advice I received from her prose comes from an essay called “Notes Toward a Politics of Location.” As she discusses the attempt to try to find a sense of place in a world of globalisation, conflict and ever-changing boundaries Rich states:
“Begin, though, not with a continent or a country or a house, but with the geography closest in – the body.”
In these words I felt a permission that I never received in a childhood surrounded by brothers (no sisters), in a country still tender post-colonialism, a country still brow-beaten by the Catholic church, a country where women’s place is in the home, a government that to this day throws about the word “austerity” in every sense and meaning it can muster, an education system that brought the state of the country into the classroom, a home that brought the asphyxiating values of the country into its moral code of conduct, a society that I – from a young age – have viewed as mostly static and stunted in its fear of progression. I was in a choke-hold of a confused and contradictory system until I read this essay. In these words I felt permitted to form my own identity. My body, from my vital organs to my limbs and skin and what I do with them was my start point. Who did I see when I looked in the mirror and what did I feel and know about myself? My body and its functions that the holy trinity of government, Catholicism and home had taught me to ignore, hide and feel ashamed of became my centre. Progressing from this I mapped for my self a unique place in a home, a town, a country, a continent, a world, a universe from which to live, experience and think as ME.
This lesson is not only a personal one. It is political and it feeds my work as a PhD student just as it did my work as an undergraduate and a Masters student when I chose to name my dissertation, “The Geography Closest In.” Rich taught me that women’s differences as well as our commonalities are important. My Masters dissertation on Chicana poetry certainly benefited from Rich’s lessons not just in name but in substance. Rich’s words gave me the freedom to engage with what I understand, challenge myself with what I don’t, and accept what I can’t.
Multitudes have learned from and value Adrienne Rich, the poet and essayist who addressed her childhood letters with:
14 Edgevale Road
The United States of America
The Continent of North America
The Western Hemisphere
The Solar System
These lessons that I have discussed barely express the impact she has had and will continue to have on me and others. Her life has ended but the gift she has left behind within the covers of her poetry and prose continue.