Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) is one of my Grrrl heroes. I was introduced to her poetry in high school by an exceptional teacher. During the final week of our AP Literature class, Mr. T asked us all to chose one poem from the collected works of the writers we had studied that year, to bring it to class, and to make a case for its literary merits in front of our classmates. The exercise was actually intended as preparation for that pesky AP Lit exam, but because we were free choose which poem we defended, we all chose works that shook us up in one way or another. The discussion that followed each presentation was so passionate and exciting that we all forgot that we were in fact studying for our exam. (Mr. T, as I shall call him, in addition to being a fab teacher, was also very clever.) After the debate, Mr. T collected the poems we had selected and selected and compiled them into an anthology, which he distributed to each and every one us, in spiral-bound samizdat form, on the last day of class. I still have mine.
My contribution to the anthology was Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” I read it once. I read it again. And again. I tucked my tattered Xeroxed copy of the text into my backpack and carried it with me, to and from work and school. In high school I was just beginning to emerge from the wreckage of early adolescence. From the traumatic transition from the innocence and naivete of childhood into the harsh reality of the adult world, where “You are on your own now kid.” I had made it past the bullying of junior high, where being too nerdy and not wearing clothes from the Express and lip gloss from the Body Shop (I know I know. But it was the ’90s…) was rewarded with a trick or two, such as having one’s chair pulled out from under her in the crowded cafeteria, by the most popular boy in the eighth grade, much to the mirthful delight of his similarly popular audience. But I digress. Things had changed for me. In high school I found other nerdy people and started to make friends. I felt myself emerging, slowly, from the terrible years that are thirteen and fourteen. “Diving into the Wreck” is a courageous confrontation of the unpleasant and the painful. Rich describes a search that takes place among ruins that still sting and abrade, but that nonetheless yields knowledge of strength gained and lessons learned. Beautiful strength. Beautiful lessons. “Diving into the Wreck” was and always will be for me a poem of rebirth.
Coincidentally, it was around the time that I discovered Adrienne Rich’s poetry that my own body really started to wander off the beaten path. The first symptoms of the nerve damage that is a result of my tethered spinal cord showed up in high school. And although my disability still remained largely invisible to those who didn’t know about, it was then, around the age of sixteen, that I started learning to do things differently so that I might keep on doing. I read about Adrienne Rich and her own struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, which began shortly after the birth of one of her sons. I drew further strength, from following her and her work. Until she died, she never stopped writing, teaching, speaking. She kept finding ways to work with her disabilities, to work around them. When you see someone managing to keep going, and keep going so well, in the face of increasingly difficult difficulties, you feel as though maybe, just maybe you can keep climbing too.
In the spirit of defiance, work, and action here is a snippet from an interview with Rich in the Progressive (c. 1994):
Q: You write in What Is Found There, “You’re tired of these lists; so am I”–these lists being sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Do you ever get so tired that you just don’t want to do politics for a while?
Rich: No, I’m not tired of the issues; I’m tired of the lists–the litany. We’re forced to keep naming these abstractions, but the realities behind them are not abstract. The writer’s job is to keep the concreteness behind the abstractions visible and alive. How can I be tired of the issues? The issues are our lives.
Adrienne Rich may have had rheumatoid arthritis, but as long as she was alive, it didn’t have her. In memory.