When I read today that Adrienne Rich had died I was immediately cast back to the window seat in the far corner of my dorm living room where I first cracked open her collection Diving into the Wreck.
When I love a book, I usually have a vivid recollection of where I was as I read it: the sticky backseat of my parent’s baby blue Volvo for Jane Eyre; a depressingly generic NYU dorm room during a depressing summer for The Fall; a battered table in the corner of my favorite café on Comm Ave for The Sound and the Fury; and the drafty, floral cushioned nook overlooking the dark, thick band of trees dividing the dorm from the lake beyond for poems like “Incipience” (Nothing can be done/but by inches. I write out my life/hour by hour, word by word), “Song” (You’re wondering if I’m lonely:/OK then, yes, I’m lonely/as a plane rides lonely and level), a “Primary Ground” (Emptiness/thrust like a batch of letters to the furthest/dark of a drawer) and of course the brilliant “Diving into the Wreck”(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.)
At a time when I felt very much alone, Rich’s poetry made me feel much less so. To my mind, that’s the greatest gift a writer can bestow. The second greatest gift may be hope, and that’s something Rich also manages to convey in even her darkest poems. And if there is any doubt, I just have to read Twenty-One Love Poems. This is XVI:
Across a city from you, I’m with you,
just as an August night
moony, inlet-warm, seabathed, I watched you sleep,
the scrubbed, sheenless wood of the dressing-table
cluttered with our brushes, books, vials in the moonlight—
or a salt-mist orchard, lying at your side
watching red sunset through the screendoor of the cabin,
G minor Mozart on the tape-recorder,
falling asleep to the music of the sea.
This island of Manhattan is wide enough
for both of us, and narrow:
I can hear your breath tonight, I know how your face
lies upturned, the halflight tracing
your generous, delicate mouth
where grief and laughter sleep together.
And oh, oh what a voice:
So, thank you Adrienne Rich—and thanks mom for giving me a collection of her poetry in the first place.