Sharon Doubiago on Adrienne Rich: The Great Outlaw Mother

rich_cover Later Poems, Selected and New, 1971-2012. Adrienne Rich. New York:
Norton. 608 pp. $39.95.

The Great Outlaw Motheri

(Originally presented for Writers Remembered, California College of Arts, San Francisco, March 1, 2013)

Like many poets of my generation, male and female, I became a poet with the reading of Diving Into The Wreck. 1973: I’m still in that big overstuffed faded blue chair we hauled up from the snowditch beyond the health food store in Plainfield Vermont reading that amazing book:

          the thing I came for:
          the wreck and not the story of the wreck
          the thing itself and not the myth

For the first time in my highly literate life I am reading about my own situation.

In those poems I found what was unspeakably true of my private life and of the great hurt and injustice—the near madness, the inexplicable mystery, for myself, for my son and daughter, and of the culture I was blindingly, helplessly, raising them into. I was fourteen years into two men who would not (could not?) talk with me. The first, their father: complete silence, literally no words to me though he talked, readily, to others, and the second, in some ways more frustrating, hurting, because he was a political radical and visionary who talked and jabbered and shared with me, his ever-present sidekick, but never in exchange with me. Perhaps he assumed that in our constant sex he was in “exchange,” but in fact his block to me was most evident there.

Adrienne’s poem, the first one in the new Later Poems Selected and New—selected and arranged by her; the earlier, award-winning poems embarrassed her, she said—is from Diving Into The Wreck, “Trying To Talk To A Man,” about driving into the desert, where

          we are testing bombs
          surrounded by a silence

          that sounds like the silence of the place
          except it came with us
          and is familiar
          and everything we were saying until now
          was an effort to blot it out—
          Out here I feel more helpless
          with you than without you…

          talking of the danger
          as if it were not ourselves…. (1971)

Diving Into The Wreck was the first I knew that other women were in similar loveless relationships; relationships of power, not love, I can say now. It was the first time I understood that I wasn’t loved because I was a woman. It was the first time I began to consider the possibility of exchanging in another way, with another love, i.e., with the world, and maybe even be heard. Possibly, I could be of use, as one poet put it.

The argument against the use of the “I” in poetry, against the personal, against narrative, the autobiographical, against the political, against a voice of truth and earnestness—that argument continues, is as old as the hills. It’s what Aristotle is talking of in his Poetics—it’s about class and power, what is proper, what is “legal,” what one can write (and can’t), and who can write it. What one can think, and what we mean when we use the adjective, Aristotelian—high class, above others, superior. The exclusiveness, conclusiveness, the preciousness, the competiveness, the inhumanness, the show, the class, the classes—what I couldn’t think then, the worldwide authoritarian patriarchal systems.

Diving Into the Wreck was a poetry that changed the world—for the better—precisely because it was a writing from the personal. Rich was hardly the first in this Twentieth Century trajectory. “Robert Lowell’s enormously influential Life Studies published in 1959,” as Ange Mlinko puts it in a negative review of Later Poems for The Nation, “broke with the formalist, impersonal modernism of T.S. Eliot (that controlled academia and publishingii)… paving the way for writers like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and others to abandon their efforts at producing well-wrought urns in favor of a confessional mode of truth-telling that rejected poetic artifice.”iii

Unfortunately, pejoratively, ruinous and divisive ever since, this movement was, in fact, labeled “Confessional.” But there were already the Beats, Ginsburg, Kerouac, Snyder, et al, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain School, H.D., Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Murial Ruykeser––the list is long and is of the major 20th Century poets. Truth-telling was a huge part of the big change, yes, but being-in-truth energy, what the cry seize the day! was about, what Olson meant by “composition by field,” was even more influential and liberating. And Adrienne Rich somehow spoke to many, of all walks, that other poets like the Beats and Olson didn’t, and—along with the whole generation that followed—there was a groundswell!—understood poetic artifice as a legacy of patriarchy. Formalism: the “asbestos gloves” of form, as she put it.

Here’s how one poet-critic explains “why so many second wave feminists theorists… [were] poets”:

Problems you had thought were private and personal—especially problems with sex, marriage, body image, work, parenting, domesticity—were not unique but rather widely shared, the result of systems of inequality rather than the failures of women…iv

“Consciousness-raising [and its subsequent poetry—poetry being a fundamental vehicle for consciousness] was crucial in forming feminist thought on a whole realm of issues, from economics to government to education, but it was particularly useful in giving a name to the ‘nameless’ forms of oppression felt in realms previously relegated to the nonpolitical arena of ‘personal relations.’”v

White male modernists like Auden (who awarded Rich the Yale) had despaired of “making things happen” with poems. Rich’s poems made things happen, they were a big part of a big change in our culture.

Early too, I read an American Poetry Review essay by her or on her in which she said (and I’ve quoted it ever since to my students): “In the beginning I wrote to show how much I know, now I write to find out what I know.” For me it was a first female articulation of a psychic process, an aesthetic I was finding with writing my first poems. Charles Olson, years before had been the first poet I loved; I understood his poetry and his “projective verse” like it was from my own soul—“line as an exchange of energy rather than a completed thought;” poetic meter based on the poet’s breathing, open construction based on sound and the linking of perceptions rather than syntax and logic—but alas his address was to men

I did become a political radical in college in partial reaction to Aristotle and in response to Olson––I was a working class girl-mother and knew in my roots what Aristotle’s Poetics was “ordering”––but I was in complete denial about sexism, its universality, whatever the system, left or right, of governance. I was one of those “liberated” women who believed she didn’t need feminism. I believed I was free (thanks to democratic America, especially to my Southern California). I did not understand the psychology of sexism.

But somehow, perhaps as a woman, then as a mother, I knew well the asbestos gloves, that the artifices/technologies were of the same mindset that oppressed, seriously threatened the world. “Out in this desert we are testing bombs.” I was a teenage bride at China Lake in the Mojave Desert where we were developing the Aim-9 Sidewinder against Russia. My mute Russian groom worked on it daily. The instruments of death, to kill whole populations. To destroy his ancestral land, the beloved country of his father, his grandparents. Our silent lovemaking suggested the future: the endangered grand and great grandchildren.

I want to try to describe what Adrienne Rich does that is so exceptional, so core with her poetics—not so much of her subject matter but of a process of her psyche. Do I dare say this? Hers is a female dialectic. Her poetry, just about all of her poems to the very last in 2011—is from an aesthetic of deep exchange, her self, her body, her sexuality, her thinking, her pain and illness, her responsibility, her story fusing—suffusing is an important word for hervii—with the air she breathes, the roads she drives, the rooms she’s in, the lover she’s with, the friends; with the news, the events, the policies, the politics, the wars, the year, the years (she put the year of composition on every poem), her Being fused with the land’s Being, the planet’s Being, the stars, with history, with the past, with time (Time’s Power, (1985-1988)—there she is all the way giving herself in exchange, equal with the other. This is not your typical ego showing the world how much he knows, how good he is, how capable. Not projective verse, perhaps subjective verse? Do I dare say that, “subjective” commonly meaning something I don’t mean here? This is a philosopher—Aristotle’s rule forever arresting us in the Command that a poet cannot be a philosopher—in deep persistent search, exploration of life and the universe; what could be, might be. A way out of our many forms of slavery. What she knows, what she can possibly know.

Her poems are meditations. They are thinking. In her “sitting,” probing, trying to see—the veils that blind us, bind us into this tragedy—to see not just the political and the cultural, but the very nature of life and death, she doesn’t write (exactly) “a poetry of witness,” she doesn’t write “descriptive scene setting,” she doesn’t “present,” she doesn’t “show.” Her main focus is not language (or, as I’ve said, form), it is Being, the nature of life, of all the world. She uses careful, precise language to make her investigation, in fact makes that a theme too,viii not the tricks and tripiness, or the play of language. She ponders, to use the oldest expression, the meaning of life. Her poems are open, exploratory, they are not conclusive. She is trying to penetrate the veils, not make new ones. They seem to be from note-taking, journal-keeping. “Origins and History of Consciousness” is the name of a poem, a typical name. “Integrity.” “Sleepwalking Next to Death” —there’s the meditative. “The Dream of a Common Language” (not the tricks and tripiness, the play of language) is another of the meditative, and the name of a book (1974-1977). They are unapologetically, unabashedly of the visionary political left—though “When my dreams showed signs/of becoming/politically correct/ …then I began to wonder.”ix Though she writes few such poems (if any) they are from a mother—the mother of three boys. From the wife of a man, their father, who killed himself (in their teenage years). She is continuing that mothering, the search for a way for her sons to survive (for all of us to survive), the instinct a woman develops from the birth, to enable the child, to prepare it for the disastrous inevitable traps of this society. And domestic, rooted in the day-by-day (the diary, the journal), how mystical she makes the day, her sense and love of place, the things of this world. The trying to see. They are Olson’s istorin: to see for oneself.x Again, in selecting these poems she insisted on the years, the importance of each year, and where she is/we are in relation to it

          …try pretending
          your time does not exist
          that you are simply youxi

Rich won major prizes very young. (In the poems this stems from her competitive/ combative relationship with her father. “For years I struggled with you….”) And then moved from what she knew, from what gained her those prizes and acclaim, and set out to explore, to make use of this privilege.xii

Most of us do not have such privilege. Most of us—from poverty, the inequities, the psychic insecurities of a capitalism that makes the trait of competition sacred—are on the opposite trajectory, prone to profound moving/kissing-up. Adrienne recognized the opportunity of her privilege, and ran with it. Like Muriel Ruykeser before her, winner too of the Yale and in combative relationship with her wealthy father, she ran out and “down”—to the people. This is amazing (though it shouldn’t be). This is profoundly exceptional. She (and Muriel too, perhaps) would not, and she did not sell out!

There’s her extraordinary poem “For Ethel Rosenberg, convicted, with her husband, of ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’: killed in the electric chair June 19, 1953” that tells of her moment (her psychic state, her situation with her family, the issue of loyalty, the issue of being female, American, Jewish, maybe Communist) in this historic moment, “one week before my wedding.” Just out of college, having won the Yale, touring Paris

          Escaping from home I found
          home everywhere:
          the Jewish question, Communism

          marriage itself
          a question of loyalty
          or punishment
          my Jewish father writing me
          letters of seventeen pages
          finely inscribed harangues

          questioning loyalty
          and punishment…

She buries “the figure” of Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair for a long time, this burying is major in the poem too—“she sank …into my soul”—it’s a big root of her not selling out to her government that would/did commit such evil. The execution of Ethel Rosenberg is finally unforgettable, and resurfaces in later life (1980)—as an issue of being female. Ethel’s mother, her brother, her sister-in-law testified against her, the bad woman, “a family/like so many/needing its female monster.” An issue of loyalty—to her father—Adrienne marries. But she would apply this radicalizing wisdom root about evil (the unforgettable) to everything the second half of her life. “Poetry never stood a chance/of standing outside history.”xiii

Adrienne’s articulation of female sexual desire, for both her husband and for women is in some ways the first (that I know of). Her strong sexuality. Her direct speaking of it:

          the bed
          where she has lain desiring him.”xiv

          the sex of the woman
          her body entire aroused to the hair
          the sex of the women our bodies entire
          molten in purpose each body a tongue
          each body a river and over and over”xv

          the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth
          your touch on me….
          reaching where I had been waiting years for you
          in my rose-wet cave…”xvi

In her move to California (in the mid 80s) there is more and more the fusion of the body, its themes, with those of the planet:

          here on the western edge
          Love for the world and we are a part of it.”xvii

This is visionary and important in any critical account of Rich, but it is also of a painful diaspora: the loss of her Jewish culture, her neighborhood in New York. Land and sex, body and death, gain and loss are fused (exchanged) themes. She brings both her eroticized/eroticizing and also ailing, in-pain body to the planet’s bloom and pain. The land, the hills, the rivers, the oceans. “The human spine translated into fog’s/almost unbearable rheumatic beauty flattering pain.”xviii

Always with that age-old question: what does it mean? Much of current Western Philosophy, Poetics, Politics and Science, including doctrines of some of the authoritarian left, maintain that this question, one with the concern and appreciation of Nature, is “romantic” and meaningless. This is not unlike denying female sexuality—well, these are from the retarded who, missing fundamental senses, welcome the artifices, the genocidal devices. But again, Rich is way beyond the programming, the orders.

In Santa Cruz’s Farewell to Adrienne Rich,xix in which six hundred people showed up and “major” California poets participated, Doren Robbins began his appreciation of Adrienne by telling of Kenneth Rexroth gifting him Diving Into The Wreck on his way to the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington.xx

Doren went on to tell the following about a familiar issue: “whether an internationally respected poet and essayist could be taught in a community college developmental English course.” (How often I’ve been told, apologetically, that my epic poem Hard Country would be too difficult for young students, I who wrote it as a young person.)

The assumed difficulty and reputation of poetry as a ‘turn off’ could have made the idea of teaching Rich to developmental students absurd. Here was a class…entirely made up of Hispanic, African American, Filipino, international and poor white students, many of them high school dropouts or single parents. Rich had rejected President Clinton’s National Medal for the Arts Award for 1997 and the Los Angeles Times published an article reflecting on her rejection letter to the National Endowment for the Arts. I photocopied the article for the class….

At first they were shocked that anyone would refuse such an honor for their art. Many of them were also shocked that one of the poems I taught them, “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)”, was not a heterosexual love poem.

Ironically, an award of this type in many European, Latin American, African and all Middle Eastern countries would be given for knowing how to keep your mouth shut about government corruption, racism or personal sexuality. Rich was a profound and determined First Amendment absolutist. The majority of democracy-focused citizens understand what the risk is and the enemy is capable of.

Reading the article aloud in class, right away my Developmental English students were unleashed where they weren’t aware of being manacled….the unleashing had to do with giving a dissident and compassionate voice to what they were made to believe they weren’t worthy to complain about in the first place.”xxi

Carol Muske-Dukes tells a similar story:

Rich did not “speak” only to “feminists”–she spoke to all women—and to men. How else explain the extraordinary sales figures of her books? How else explain the night she traveled with me to Bedford Hills Women’s Prison in New York, in 1977, not long after her essay collection, Of Woman Born, was published? Adrienne Rich was one of the very few writers who accepted my invitation to read their work to inmates. Others were too busy or (if they admitted it) too afraid. I’d founded a prison writing program which brought (mostly young) poets, novelists, playwrights to Riker’s Island and throughout prisons in New York state. As Rich climbed the icy prison hill—moving slowly beside me, leaning on her cane—I worried about how she would be received. She was going to be reading from and talking about “The Heart of Maternal Darkness,” a chapter in Of Woman Born. She would be addressing women inmates, several of them in prison for violence—against spouses, (who’d been abusive, often) and even against their own children. In a room filled with women who had challenged the law in a variety of ways, her subject retained the power to shock. “Why do women beat or kill their children?” she asked in the reverberating silence. She was not condoning this violence but investigating its sources. She was not speaking to “white bourgeois feminists”xxii—she was speaking to women of diverse backgrounds, and the majority were African American or Hispanic. They listened, rapt, to this small fierce woman as she spoke for several minutes—and then, one by one, they began to ask questions and then they began to tell their stories. They didn’t talk about nannies or doulahs, as the new young mothers Mlinko describes—differently inspired by the same book. (Why does this leftest mag repeatedly trash leftist poetry?xxiii) They responded to the articulation of a darkness no one had ever explored with them before. Rich described her own journey, in poetry and life, as “exploratory”—and she was now deep into the uncharted territory within a “sacred” institution, fearless and utterly engaging.”xxiv

Philosopher, thinker, poet, essayist, political activist, teacher, lover, mother: there’s the immense importance of Of Woman Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution. This book of essays on motherhood—though as I remember not a word about her own mothering, I assume she was protecting her sons—inspired me as much as Diving Into The Wreck. The all-encompassing, fundamental human fact of those three words: Of Woman Born: all of us. Her book is the core of my thirty years memoir work, “Son.”

She tells somewhere that being a mother is what radicalized her. I’ve always said exactly that: being a mother, a teenage mother,xxv is what radicalized me. I knew this long before I knew of Adrienne Rich, or any poetry (except the King James Bible), I knew this in the birth of my son. The first thing that happened with his body-ripping, mind-blowing, traumatizing birth was the question of God, and my fierce faith in Christianity. Dear God, if you are all powerful why is this innocent human from out of my body in danger? Christianity was psychic and legal blackmail not unlike what I was subjected to by my father and family. I still don’t fully understand why, in that wracking birth, awakening to consciousness of patriarchy and the physical power of the female body isn’t universal.

There was a reading that she gave for Diesel Book Store on College Avenue in Oakland, about 2005. So many showed up we were redirected to the old Masonic hall a few doors north. That a woman like her (old, crippled, Lesbian, Jewish, a poet not of Aristotle’s poetics! etc.) could so catalyze such an already catalyzed audience—could be, was the catalyst, could so pack an audience, was so magnificent, so instructive, so beautiful, so lyrical, inspiring, but also so penetrating, a great unembedded/independent journalist in perception, in knowing the importance, urgency, the truth in linking the daily news to the self, to all of us, humanity to the planet’s fate, wow, to write like that. To remember to write like that. You can write like that, including all of it, all of consciousness. Consciousness (thinking): that’s her main theme: write from the consciousness of the world, from the news which poetry, a vehicle of consciousness, enables you to, most personally.

But what happened to me mostly that night, what I retain most from her reading, was the music. Her music, the lyrical sensuousness in her compassion and philosophy and seeing, her mesmerizing rhythm outside regular prescribed form and meter—based on her breathing and open construction? Based on sound and linking of perceptions rather than syntax and logic?—startled me and remains near-indescribable (though not unlike what I’ve always “heard,” the psychic state I’ve always gone into, in reading her.) The beauty almost overwhelming. The offering of the self to the others. The responsibility (affirmation, hope and meaning) of this. A life of this. 82 years. That fusion, suffusion of self and the world. I stood against the northern wall of the Masonic Hall, the standing room only space. I remembered and I knew anew and newly. My body there. My story. I’m a poet. She’s my mother:

          When I speak of an end to suffering I don’t
          mean anesthesia. I mean knowing the world and my
          place in it….”xxvi

          The decision to feed the world
          is the real decision. No revolution
          has chosen it. For that choice requires
          that women shall be free.”

(And of course, as she knew, this is not about giving the vote to male-identified women. Such women are not free. Nor are we who vote for such.)

          isn’t a revolution, but a way of knowing
          why it must come.”xxvii

And, again, from the important poem, “North American Time”:

          When my dreams showed signs
          of becoming
          politically correct
          no unruly images
          escaping beyond borders
          when walking in the street I found my
          themes cut out for me
          knew what I would not report
          for fear of enemies’ usage
          then I began to wonder

          Everything we write
          will be used against us
          or against those we love.
          These are the terms,
          take them or leave them.
          Poetry never stood a chance
          of standing outside history….

          Try sitting at a typewriter
          one calm summer evening
          at a table by a window
          in the country, try pretending
          your time does not exist
          that you are simply you
          try telling yourself
          you are not accountable
          to the life of your tribe
          the breath of your planet.


[i]Carol Muske-Dukes wonderfully labels Adrienne Rich “the Great Outlaw Mother, in “Diving into the Wreck: Reviewing the Reviewer,” Carol Muske-Dukes, Huff Post Books, 2/28/2013.

[ii] labeled New Criticism, Formalism, and “Closed verse” by the French.

[iii]“Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich,” Ange Mlinko, The Nation, Feb 8, 2013

[iv]Minnie Bruce Pratt. As cited in Sister Arts: On Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Others, Leslie Moore, Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb 8th, 2013

[v]T.V. Reed as cited in Sister Arts: On Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Others, Leslie Moore, Los Angeles Review of books, Feb 8th, 2013

[vi] Rich references Olson in a number of places. Clearly she was influenced by him.

[vii] See her wrangle with Shakespeare’s word subdued, Sonnet 111, “…to feel suffused by the materials that one has perforce to work in is not necessarily to be subdued, though some might think so.” Notes to “Inscriptions.”

[viii]“If I could …make you well again
no, not again
but still….” “
In Memoriam, DK,” (1986)

[ix] “North American Time”

[x] In his influential 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference lecture Olson says that Herodotus introduces this word and concept in practically his first paragraph and from that aesthetic of “finding out for the self” only then tells a story (the story he found ). What stuns me now is my use of this concept in my 1988 book of stories, The Book of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, which I had not remembered as stemming from Olson or Herodotus, but from Stan Brakhage’s autopsy film, “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes,” and learning that the word “autopsy” means “seeing with one’s own eyes.” This psychic state/stance is, again, part of Rich’s aesthetic of “finding out what you know,” with the subsequent demand of personal responsibility, spiritual growth and maturity, as opposed to showing what you know which is part of the oppressor’s psychic weaponry.

[xi] “North American Time”

[xii] “Try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet”
(North American Time)

[xiii] “North American Time”

[xiv] “Moving in Winter”

[xv] “Six Narratives”

[xvi] “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)”

[xvii] “For a Friend in Travail”

[xviii] “Inscriptions, Five: voices”

[xix] Organized by Book Shop Santa Cruz, December 6, 2012.

[xx] “This narrative is from an article, “A Farewell to Adrienne Rich,” that appeared in Santa Cruz Weekly: I had a much different monologue at the actual reading.” Doren Robbins.

[xxi] “Farewell to Adrienne Rich,” by Doren Robbins.

[xxii] “Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich,” Ange Mlinko, The Nation, Feb 8, 2013.

[xxiii]My first national publication was an essay defending Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us which had been trashed by Katha Pollitt in The Nation. The American Poetry Review, Jan-Feb, 1982.

[xxiv] “Diving into the Wreck: Reviewing the Reviewer,” Carol Muske-Dukes, Huff Post Books, 2/28/2013.

[xxv] If I’d waited until I was thirty, I would be a very different person.

[xxvi]“Sources, XXIII”


Works Cited

Doubiago, Sharon. The Book of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1988.

—. “Towards An American Criticism: A Reading Of Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. American Poetry Review. Ed. David Bonanno. Philadelphia, PA, Vol 12/No. l. Jan/Feb l983. 5-39.

Forché, Carolyn. The Country Between Us. New York: Harper Perennial, 1982.

Mlinko Ange. “Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich,” The Nation, Feb 8, 2013.

Muske-Dukes, Carol. “Diving into the Wreck: Reviewing the Reviewer,” Huff Post Books, 2/28/2013. Or “Diving into the Wreck: Reviewing the Reviewer,” Carol Muske-Dukes, Huff Post Books, 2/28/2013.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. As cited in “Sister Arts: On Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Others.” Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb 8th, 2013.

Reed, T.V. Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb 8th, 2013.

Rich, Adrienne. Later Poems, Selected and New, 1971-2012. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. Dir. Stan Brakhage. 1971.

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