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.
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”
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
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
our names do not appear.
As iterated often on #NastyWomenWriters, the work of un-erasing and collective restoration is an important part of what this site 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).
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.
“…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” (159), Walt Whitman being the other, and includes poetry by Dickinson not often anthologized or mass reproduced.
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).
#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 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
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
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 writes the following poem to Dickinson in the beginning of her career. (Higginson is the editor who published a few of Dickinson’s poems while she was alive. They corresponded for years and in one letter he referred to her as his half-cracked poet.)
“I Am in Danger—Sir—” by Adrienne Rich
“Half-cracked” to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood
mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end—
who are you?
you, woman, masculine
for whom the word was more
than a symptom—
a condition of being.
Till the air buzzing with spoiled language
sang in your ears
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.”
“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.” This is “The Spirit of Place,” and parts of this poem are addressed to my friend, lover, and comrade, and parts of poem are addressed to Emily Dickinson: (http://www.emilydickinson.org/titanic-operas/folio-one/adrienne-rich)
I include here the portion addressed to Dickinson:
Strangers are an endangered species
In Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst
cocktails are served the scholars
gather in celebration
their pious or clinical legends
festoon the walls like imitations
of period patterns
(…and, as I feared, my “life” was made a “victim”)
The remnants pawed the relics
the cult assembled in the bedroom
and you whose teeth were set on edge by churches
resist your shrine
unless in words
All we are strangers–dear–The world is not
acquainted with us, because we are not acquainted
with her. And Pilgrims!–Do you hesitate? and
Soldiers oft–some of us victors, but those I do
not see tonight owing to the smoke.–We are hungry,
and thirsty, sometimes–We are barefoot–and cold–
This place is large enough for both of us
the river-fog will do for privacy
this is my third and last address to you
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.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
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.