Pillbox

A farewell to beloved poet Adrienne Rich

Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/ Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/

The news of Adrienne Rich’s death pulled me from bed to bookshelf. Three of her tomes were there, spines broken and pages dog-eared. Well-loved and well-worn, these books were my refuge, my release, my rage-fuel. But now they were not filled with the words of a living, breathing, fighting woman; rather, they now were the legacy of Rich.

Rich was a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, and most importantly, a poet. Across more than twenty poetry collections, Rich defined a voice that explored feminism, love, homosexuality, politics, aging, marriage, and war. Under nearly all of it was a burning anger against inequalities and injustices in our world. She was a master of refining those topics into brutally stark emotions and clean framings of complex issues.

Rich’s ability to harness her own perspectives and feelings into verse is why she won dozens of awards over the 60 years she was publishing, and why her poems are so deeply treasured by those who read them. In her foreword to the 1984 publication of The Fact of a Doorframe, she said, “Over the years it has seemed to be just that — the desire to be heard, to resound in another’s soul — that is the impulse behind writing poems.” That is what she achieved for me, for an entire generation before me, and for countless more as we now collect the entire body of work that she left us.

The themes in her work are still so desperately needed today. A woman’s gender still puts her at a disadvantage, two people of the same gender cannot have equal relationships under the law, and we continue to kill human beings as we jump from war to war.

But even if we had equality, acceptance, and peace, Rich’s language is a paragon itself. The beauty in her poetry is not just in her confrontation of issues that are of the utmost importance to her and the minorities she supports, but is also in her passion for language. This is poetry: A master using words and phrases to evoke an emotional response layered in a palimpsest of cultural fragments and societal issues.

My hope for our future is that we can all take a moment from our days filled with the injustices of society, the continued warmongering, the rush and pace of modern technology, and, for just a moment, visit Rich’s authentically human voice. My hope is that you can let her speak to your soul as she has to mine.

In “Diving Into the Wreck,” Rich, narrating, took her camera, her knife, her book of myths: They were her tools. They were the devices with which she explored and dug into the world. For me, and for myriad readers living today, we need more than that. For us, Rich was the knife. She was the camera. She showed me how to dig deeper than I thought possible. She taught me how to see myself, how to explore, and how to rage. Farewell.