Of all the lines written in the English language, the ones that have inspired, moved and meant the most to me are the ones penned by Adrienne Rich.
My worn and tattered copy of The Dream of a Common Language, read, loved and turned to so many times, continues to be my favorite book to take off the shelf and revisit. Occasionally, when I remember (or hear as a whisper in my ear) one of the lines from a poem printed in it, my body fills with excitement and deep memory or what could be described as a feeling of reunion. Those poems evoke a place I wish to live within—a place I feel I belong.
Adrienne Rich gave this to me. There are not many places where I have been able to feel like I belong. (The predominant feeling in my life is that I do not belong.) I embody a deep feminism that is angry, outspoken, outraged and longs for revolution and change. I am often viewed as difficult. Difficult people do not often belong.
But when I read the words of Adrienne Rich, both her poems and her prose, I know that I belong and I want more than anything to be sure I belong to this place she creates and evokes with her written words.
No one articulates the female experience for me as well as Adrienne Rich. With her poignant honesty, (Of Woman Born) sharp intellect (On Lies, Secrets and Silence) and skill in the craft, she pens words that allow us into the internal voice and experience of women. She uses punctuation (parenthesis) and italics to express different levels of feeling and knowing.
Through research and deep imagining into their experiences, she gives expression to women who did not have their voices in their lifetimes. She speaks of the places where women have been silenced, mutilated and most of all where women have been taught and learned to lie about the truth of their experiences.
Adrienne Rich spoke and wrote her truth and it cut through me like the voice of a friend who truly hears and understands you and actually offers good advice in response.
With Adrienne Rich I did not feel difficult. I felt beloved. In Adrienne Rich, I found a role model. I am so grateful to Adrienne Rich.
I include here her two poems that move me the most and that I return to again and again. The first, “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” has become my anthem (words to live by):
to settle for less We have dreamed of this
all of our lives
The second, “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff,” gave voice to what I had witnessed of so many women. A woman pulled into the undertow of duty and biology, her voice and art buried within and with her, the voice of a woman eclipsed by the life of a man.
PHANTASIA FOR ELVIRA SHATAYEV
(Leader of a woman’s climbing team, all of whom died in a storm on Lenin Peak, August 1974. Later, Shatayev’s husband found and buried the bodies.)
The cold felt cold until our blood
grew colder then the wind
died down and we slept
If in this sleep I speak
it’s with a voice no longer personal
(I want to say with voices)
When the wind tore our breath from us at last
we had no need of words
For months for years each one of us
had felt her own yes growing in her
slowly forming as she stood at windows waited
for trains mended her rucksack combed her hair
What we were to learn was simply what we had
up here as out of all words that yes gathered
its forces fused itself and only just in time
to meet a No of no degrees
the black hole sucking the world in
I feel you climbing toward me
your cleated bootsoles leaving their geometric bite
colossally embossed on microscopic crystals
as when I trailed you in the Caucasus
Now I am further
ahead than either of us dreamed anyone would be
I have become
the white snow packed like asphalt by the wind
the women I love lightly flung against the mountain
that blue sky
our frozen eyes unribboned through the storm
we could have stitched that blueness together like a quilt
You come (I know this) with your love your loss
strapped to your body with your tape-recorder camera
ice-pick against advisement
to give us burial in the snow and in your mind
While my body lies out here
flashing like a prism into your eyes
how could you sleep You climbed here for yourself
we climbed for ourselves
When you have buried us told your story
Ours does not end we stream
into the unfinished the unbegun
Every cell’s core of heat pulsed out of us
into the thin air of the universe
the armature of rock beneath these snows
this mountain which has taken the imprint of our minds
through changes elemental and minute
as those we underwent
to bring each other here
choosing ourselves each other and this life
whose every breath and grasp and further foothold
is somewhere still enacted and continuing
In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready
and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love
In the diary as the wind began to tear
at the tents over us I wrote:
We know now we have always been in danger
down in our separateness
and now up here together but till now
we had not touched our strength
In the diary torn from my fingers I had written:
What does love mean
what does it mean “to survive”
A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow We will not live
to settle for less We have dreamed of this
all of our lives
~Adrienne Rich, 1974
Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff Clara Westhoff 1878-1954 became friends at Worpswede, an artist’s colony near Bremen, Germany, summer 1899. In January 1900, spent a half-year together in Paris, where Paula painted and Clara studied sculpture with Rodin. In August they returned to Worpswede, and spent the next winter together in Berlin. In 1901, Clara married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; soon after, Paula married the painted Otto Modersohn. She died in a hemorrhage after childbirth, murmuring, What a shame!
The autumn feels slowed down,
summer still holds on here, even the light
seems to last longer than it should
or maybe I’m using it to the thin edge.
The moon rolls in the air. I didn’t want this child.
You’re the only one I’ve told.
I want a child maybe, someday, but not now.
Otto has a calm, complacent way
of following me with his eyes, as if to say
Soon you’ll have your hands full!
And yes, I will; this child will be mine
not his, the failures, if I fail
will all be mine. We’re not good, Clara,
at learning to prevent these things,
and once we have a child it is ours.
But lately I feel beyond Otto or anyone.
I know now the kind of work I have to do.
It takes such energy! I have the feeling I’m
moving somewhere, patiently, impatiently,
in my loneliness. I’m looking everywhere in nature
for new forms, old forms in new places,
the planes of an antique mouth, let’s say, among the leaves.
I know and do not know
what I am searching for.
Remember those months in the studio together,
you up to your strong forearms in wet clay,
I trying to make something of the strange impressions
assailing me—the Japanese
flowers and birds on silk, the drunks
sheltering in the Louvre, that river-light,
those faces…Did we know exactly
why we were there? Paris unnerved you,
you found it too much, yet you went on
with your work…and later we met there again,
both married then, and I thought you and Rilke
both seemed unnerved. I felt a kind of joylessness
between you. Of course he and I
have had our difficulties. Maybe I was jealous
of him, to begin with, taking you from me,
maybe I married Otto to fill up
my loneliness for you.
Rainer, of course, knows more than Otto knows,
he believes in women. But he feeds on us,
like all of them. His whole life, his art
is protected by women. Which of us could say that?
Which of us, Clara, hasn’t had to take that leap
out beyond our being women
to save our work? or is it to save ourselves?
Marriage is lonelier than solitude.
Do you know: I was dreaming I had died
giving birth to the child.
I couldn’t paint or speak or even move.
My child—I think—survived me. But what was funny
in the dream was, Rainer had written my requiem—
a long, beautiful poem, and calling me his friend.
I was your friend
but in the dream you didn’t say a word.
In the dream his poem was like a letter
to someone who has no right
to be there but must be treated gently, like a guest
who comes on the wrong day. Clara, why don’t I dream of you?
That photo of the two of us—I have it still,
you and I looking hard into each other
and my painting behind us. How we used to work
side by side! And how I’ve worked since then
trying to create according to our plan
that we’d bring, against all odds, our full power
to every subject. Hold back nothing
because we were women. Clara, our strength still lies
in the things we used to talk about:
how life and death take one another’s hands,
the struggle for truth, our old pledge against guilt.
And now I feel dawn and the coming day.
I love waking in my studio, seeing my pictures
come alive in the light. Sometimes I feel
it is myself that kicks inside me,
myself I must give suck to, love…
I wish we could have done this for each other
all our lives, but we can’t…
They say a pregnant woman
dreams her own death. But life and death
take one another’s hands. Clara, I feel so full
of work, the life I see ahead, and love
for you, who of all people
however badly I say this
will hear all I say and cannot say.
Clara Westhoff 1878-1954
became friends at Worpswede, an artist’s colony near Bremen, Germany, summer 1899. In January 1900, spent a half-year together in Paris, where Paula painted and Clara studied sculpture with Rodin. In August they returned to Worpswede, and spent the next winter together in Berlin. In 1901, Clara married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; soon after, Paula married the painted Otto Modersohn. She died in a hemorrhage after childbirth, murmuring, What a shame!
If you have not yet read any Adrienne Rich, I would say now is the time to begin.
Adrienne Rich is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Theresa C. Dintino, 2016
Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language, (W.W. Norton & Co., 1978)