In Memory: Adrienne Rich

by Anne Marie Rooney

The message came while I was reading Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups: “RIP Adrienne Rich,” from one of my favorite poets and women in the world, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram. “Oh god,” I wrote back, stopped. I put down my book to go pick up a package, two Renee Gladman books, hand-me-downs from Gina Abelkop. I wanted to hold something in my hands, but mostly I wanted to step outside, to talk a little to the cats who live in the courtyard. In my throat something like a word tightened.

I did not open the books. I wrote to a woman, a friend, a filmmaker and once-collaborator I once loved, off and on for two summers, on the tarry rooftop of my old high school, on the floor of her Fort Green room. That night, she’d put her dog-eared and much-highlighted copy of Midnight Salvage into my hands before picking up her camera. I read. I read.

And read. The city in these pages: yes. The body: true; one shade of mine. As the day got darker and the boys came to sit on the stoop and hoot, we got closer, women held briefly apart from the world, from fear. We read that night, that summer, that book.

Tonight I told her Adrienne Rich had died. “Oh god,” she wrote back.

When I was drafting a brief obit for another magazine, I kept having to start over, start again. As a news-writer I thought it might be important, or at least standard, to note Rich’s many accolades, from MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, to the Frost Medal and the Wallace Stevens Award. As a fan of hers—and as a woman and as a feminist and as a writer and as another dozen ands—I felt I was betraying something. Somehow, I felt it wrong to, with only the space of a paragraph to speak her import, give more room to other names, as if to say to the internet, these Big Men validate her, look at how big she, too, grows under the (heavy) laurels of their approval, she can never be a Big Man but look how they endorse her all the same.

Adrienne Rich came before us. She was never the poet laureate and many lesser poets were. This is fine and it is not fine. I look forward to what will no doubt soon be unveiled as the innaugural Rich Prize, or Chair, or Residency, or Fellowship. And I hate the world for needing one of our greatest dead, as so many others, before we can cast her name up there in big bronze letters, with the big Big Men. Oh god.

As a memorial, this stutters. Rich taught us to speak out from the i, from, no, the stronger I, to grit our teeth, lock our knees, locate ourselves in space, start from the tall spine, move out. I am trying to do what she taught, and this, tonight, means pointing, here. here, here, on a map she helped to draw.

Here I am, writing that body; here is my I, naming shining names.

Dodie Bellamy to Lillian-Yvonne Bertram to Renee Gladman to Gina Abelkop. Adrienne Rich came before us. I think she would also say that my assuming affinity is a bunch of nonsense, that all of us women writers are, yes, women, and yes, writers, but that there the resemblance ends—or, even if it doesn’t, that it is dangerous to assume otherwise. And so it is. Still, I have found that tracing these lines, writing these lineages is important feminist practice. In a world in which so much puts us down, shuts us up, makes us privilege one identity over another while our male cohorts just get to be “writers,” no ghettoizing qualifiers about it, I think kinship matters. I think a room apart from the world matters. Even if—especially if—all of our rooms are different—imaginary, lush, or chairless—I want to see us all in them, writing through and into and out from.

Adrienne Rich came before us and we are writing. Because Adrienne Rich came before us we are writing. In her own words, “this is the end of these notes, but it is not an ending.”

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