In her poetry and prose, Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) writes about important, forgotten and misrepresented women. She re-tells their stories, rescues and “un-erases” them.

“’Erasure’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible…how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out.” ~Parul Sehgal

If oppressors have hands that hold erasers, resisters must acquire magic un-erasers to restore and recover data that has been systematically removed. Rich’s hands are large and with them she un-erases much, clearing the frosted windows obscuring so many women’s biographies, opening and revealing vast patches in the masked truth of our ancestresses’ lives and realities, helping us to see ourselves better through these clearings.

Adrienne Rich

Through Adrienne Rich I first learned of Paula Modersohn-Becker and Clara Westoff, was made to think in a new way about Marie Curie, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Elvira Shateyev and so many more. Because of Adrienne Rich’s book, Of Woman Born, I was able to experience motherhood and mothering through a fresh lens, considering all the mothers I had descended from with unique clarity. Adrienne Rich’s work also contributed to my discovery of the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and the women centered cultures of Old Europe that held sway long before Rome and Greece. Adrienne Rich, both the woman and her work, freed me to reframe my life as a woman.

Adrienne Rich, with her large un-erasing hands, returned so many women to me, their stories, their histories, their passions, their lives-women I otherwise would never know in this way. Adrienne Rich returns women’s experience to women and that is an intentional act.

From her 1973 poem “Diving into the Wreck”

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The work of un-erasing and collective restoration is an important part of what #nastywomenwriters is about. Erasure is an effective tool that has been used against women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other “minority” or disempowered populations. This site seeks to counteract that. In the introduction to On Lies, Secrets and Silence, Rich writes:

“The entire history of women’s struggle for self-determination has been muffled in silence over and over. One serious cultural obstacle encountered by any feminist writer is that each feminist work has tended to be received as if it emerged from nowhere, as if each of us had lived, thought, and worked without any historical past or contextual present. This is one of the ways in which women’s work and thinking has been made to seem sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own”(LSS 11).

“If there is an opposite to erasure, it is allowing for full personhood in all its idiosyncrasies”  ~Parul Sehgal

Rich sets out to uncover and set the record straight with her writing. She intends to deconstruct the patriarchal lens that has been applied to women − their lives and realities. She intends to feel into their experience from her point of view as a woman, lesbian and feminist − to reveal aspects that have yet to be revealed.

She intends to return us to one another, deliver to us our foremothers and to remind us over and over again we are not the first and we will not be the last to think such thoughts, have such experiences. We can remain connected through time by our work, by our words. Rich calls for more works to be viewed through that lesbian/feminist lens as a way of counteracting the patriarchal lens always applied to such artists and women, to allow other options of analysis to emerge:

“…lesbian/feminist criticism has the power to illuminate the work of any woman artist, beyond proving her a “practicing lesbian” or not. Such a criticism will ask questions hitherto passed over; will not search obsessively for heterosexual romance as the key to a woman artist’s life and work; will ask how she came to be for–herself and how she identified with and was able to use women’s culture, a women’s tradition, and what the presence of other women meant in her life. It will thus identify images, codes, metaphors, strategies, points of stress, unrevealed by conventional criticism which works from a male/mainstream perspective. And this process will make women artists of the past—and present—available to us in ways we cannot yet predict to imagine”(LSS 158).

In her essay, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” (1975) Rich applies her magical un-erasers to Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). She writes of her own lifelong connection to and wonder over the reclusive poet of Amherst, Massachusetts’ life. She names Dickinson as one of the two “mid-nineteenth-century American geniuses” (LSS 159), Walt Whitman being the other, and includes poetry by Dickinson not often anthologized or mass reproduced.

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson, she notes, has been “reduced to quaintness or spinsterish oddity by many of her commentators, sentimentalized, fallen in love with like some gnomic Garbo, still unread in the breadth and depth of her full range of work”(LSS 160).

Whereas, Rich came “to imagine her as somehow too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will, not at all frail or breathless, someone whose personal dimensions would be felt in a household”(LSS 160).

Dickinson took inspiration from the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett and George Eliot. She chose the life she led deliberately so that she could pursue her art. She is possessed by her art and writes “about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without that daemon once it has possessed you”(LSS 173).

Rich analyzes the following poem as Dickinson’s feelings of being possessed by her art, by her need to create poetry in such a way that she feels herself to be a “loaded gun.” On Dickinson’s need to hide her creative passion and possession by the muse or what Rich calls her “daemon,”Rich remarks that, “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry”(LSS 162).

#734 Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —
In Corners — till a Day
The Owner passed — identified —
And carried Me away —

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods —
And now We hunt the Doe —
And every time I speak for Him —
The Mountains straight reply —

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow —
It is as a Vesuvian face
Has let its pleasure through —

And when at Night — Our good Day done —
I guard My Master’s Head —
’Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow — to have shared —

To foe of His — I’m deadly foe —
None stir the second time —
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye —
Or an emphatic Thumb —

Though I than He — may longer live
He longer must — than I —
For I have but the power — to kill
Without — the power to die —

Rich, a poet herself, 46 at the time she wrote this essay about Dickinson, can understand the “loaded gun of poetry”: the need to write, to focus on one’s art, to make space for the daemon to roam free within one’s consciousness, to allow the seclusion and quiet within which the art can emerge, unabated, unedited and uncensored onto the page. Rich, stating in the essay, “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed”(LSS 160), claims Dickinson as a foremother, a fellow poet, a giant in whose shadow she stands. Within Dickinson’s wisdom she wishes to learn. 

Because Dickinson has been so trivialized and infantilized as a poet, other women poets can easily forget to include her as a foremother, as a source of inspiration and wisdom from whom they can learn and in whom they can find camaraderie. Rich, long obsessed with Dickinson, wanting to know more about her and her life (don’t we all?) describes herself as “hovering like an insect against the screens of [Dickinson’s] existence”(LSS 158), longing to be let in, a voyeur to her life and work, “yet more and more, as a woman poet finding my own methods, I have come to understand her necessities, could have been witness in her defense”(LSS 158).

Rich states:

“Dickinson is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity. For a long time, as we have seen, this fact was obscured by the kinds of selections made from her work by timid if well-meaning editors. In fact Dickinson was a great psychologist, and like every great psychologist, she began with the material she had at hand: herself. She had to possess the courage to enter, through language, states which most people deny or veil with silence”(176).

#822 Emily Dickinson

#822 in the author’s handwriting

This Consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men −

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.

Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be­­­­­­­­­­­−
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.

Rich sees in Dickinson’s poetry a woman writing of these states of “psychic extremity” under the guise of other experiences. Because

“in writing at all—particularly an unorthodox and original poetry like Dickinson’s—women have often felt in danger of losing their status as women. And this status has always been defined in terms of relationships to men—as daughter, sister, bride, wife, mother, mistress, Muse.. . .  To recognize and acknowledge our own interior power has always been a path mined with risks for women: to acknowledge that power and commit oneself to it as Emily Dickinson did was an immense decision”(LSS 166).

Rich finds comfort in Dickinson’s bravery—her willingness to name things Rich is only just going through—inspiration in her choices, permission in her subjects. Upon availing herself of the entire body of Dickinson’s work she writes: 

“But who, if you read through the seventeen hundred and seventy five poems—who—woman or man—could have passed through that imagination and not come our transmuted?”(LSS 163).

In the beginning of her career Rich pens the following lines to Dickinson in her poem “I Am in Danger—Sir—”

and in your half-cracked way you chose
silence for entertainment,
chose to have it out at last
on your own premises.

The last lines Rich writes about and to Dickinson is in her poem, “The Spirit of Place.” Rich explains:

“I started writing it when, with my woman friend, lover, comrade, I moved into the valley of western Massachusetts where Emily Dickinson was born, and lived all of her life. And I was occasionally asked, half jokingly, if I had moved there to be near Emily, and I acerbically answered “no” (http://www.emilydickinson.org/titanic-operas/folio-one/adrienne-rich).

with the hands of a daughter I would cover you
from all intrusion     even my own
saying     rest to your ghost

with the hands of a sister I would leave your hands
open or closed as they prefer to lie
and ask no more of who or why or wherefore

with the hands of a mother I would close the door
on the rooms you’ve left behind
and silently pick up my fallen work

###

One magic un-eraser reveals the need for another. One #NastyWoman un-erased inspires and often begets another.

Both Adrienne Rich and Emily Dickinson are #NastyWomenWriters.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2019, 2021

Works Cited

Dickinson Electronic Archives, http://www.emilydickinson.org/titanic-operas/folio-one/adrienne-rich

Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-72. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2013.

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1979.