Poetry as a Feminist Practice

adriennerichBy Erin Heuring

A poet, essayist, and one of the most prominent voices in modern feminism, Adrienne Rich explored the rich experiences of women through the written word. Hailed as “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the twentieth century,” it seems fitting to honor her in the aftermath of April’s National Poetry Month. Adrienne Rich passed away March 27, 2012, but her poetry will endure for generations to come.

Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland on May 16, 1929. She attended Harvard and studied poetry, and later married an economics professor she had met there. After the birth of her third child, Rich produced a book of poetry which mark a dramatic shift in the themes she explored in her writing. Entitled “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” the volume included more personal poetry and an exploration of what it was to be a wife and mother in the 1950s. Rich was also involved in politics and the New Left and began teaching at Columbia University. Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” split the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry with Allen Ginsberg. After divorcing her husband, Rich began a long-term relationship with her life partner, Michelle Cliff, and acknowledged lesbianism as a political and personal issue. Rich also wrote socio-political essays, including “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which was one of the first to bring to light the theme of lesbian existence. During this period of Rich’s life, she seem to “cross a threshold into a new relationship with the universe.” Rich died last year at her Santa Cruz, California home at the age of 82.

The poet W.S. Merwin said of Rich’s writings:

“All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth, and her command of language from the first has been startlingly powerful.”

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent than
fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.


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