Heavy cold rains pouring down, a welcome relief. The dog furious that I have taken away his sunshine. Put down old threadbare rugs and towelling at the back door to catch the tracked-in mud, took out rain jackets and wellington boots from the spare room. Planning a luxurious fish pie for supper with a little smoked salmon, flaked yellowtail fish and cream, buttery mashed potatoes with a little grated Parmesan. Rain like dull music in the background, punctuated by deep sighs from the housebound Great Dane. The smaller dogs are curled up tight on the sofa, content to snuggle indoors for the day. The overgrown puppy sits staring out at the falling rain, wondering when I will relent and make it hot and bright again.
I’m sad too, gazing out at the rain on a dark morning, because one of my favourite poets died this week, the iconic lesbian feminist Adrienne Rich, at the age of 82. I had been waiting for another book from her and feel bereft to know that trenchant political voice has gone silent. For at least 30 years I have carried her poems around with me, bought new books of poetry and essays, I remember finding a copy of A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far and taking it with me everywhere, learning the poems off by heart, unsure what I was reading except that it stirred me. And borrowing The Dream of a Common Language until I could buy my own copy. The essays: On Lies, Secrets and Silence, the book examining myths around motherhood (Of Woman Born), the radical revolutionary statements, the fearlessness. I suppose I don’t mention her often enough because I try to sidestep controversy here, but in all my thinking there has been the debt owed to Adrienne Rich, the mother of three sons, Jewish, lesbian, disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, that voice speaking to women about what might be possible.
“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.”
She refused the National Medal of the Arts in 1997. “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” she wrote in a letter addressed to then-President Clinton. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
She established solidarity with silenced women in apartheid South Africa, Nicaragua, Guatemala, worked with refugees and spoke out constantly against bigotry and prejudice.
“To write as if your life depended on it; to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public the words you have dredged; sieved up in dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence — words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.”
So strange to live on a world without Adrienne Rich there. She was a contemporary of Sylvia Plath, of Anne Sexton in the 1950s and ’60s, began with polite ladylike poems that echoed the great men poets of the day. She changed, she found her own voice and dared to use it. What might Plath have written if she had not committed suicide? What might Anne Sexton have written if she had not been snared by alcoholism? Again and again in her poetry, Adrienne Rich urges women to move beyond victimisation, to fight for a better life, to believe in themselves and the dream of a common language.
Sometimes the moon
and I discern a woman
I loved, drowning in secrets, fear wound round her throat
and choking her like hair. And this is she
with whom I tried to speak, whose hurt, expressive head
turning aside from pain, is dragging down deeper
where it cannot hear me,
and soon I shall know I was talking to my own soul.