Thursday, 29 March 2012

Adrienne Rich: Poet & Roofwalker Extraordinaire

I have just heard that Adrienne Rich has died at the age of 82. I first came across  American poet Adrienne Rich on a school syllabus while tutoring a few years ago. Her poems were revelatory and rebellious and I was instantly hooked. She was the first poet that I was passionate about teaching and such a great addition to the usual traditional line-up of poets (predominantly male, I might add) on the schoolbooks.

I especially admired her for her outspokenness in the restrictive time she was writing. As a woman, declaring herself (and pursuing being) a writer was an incredibly brave thing to do, given that the profession was so male-dominated and female-wary. I also admired the fact that she was fearless as a person in the pursuit of happiness, abandoning all things that kept her tied down, kept her from being her true self, was not afraid of taking 'leaps' to live a full and true life, a life of 'a succession of brief, amazing moments/each one making possible the next.'

Rich's poems lodge in your mind as fiery assaults on patriarchy, gender inequality and society's moulded stereotypical strata. Who can forget the irony of 'The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room,' the raw truth on the disillusionment and inequality of relationships in 'Living in Sin' and 'Trying to Talk to a Man', or the wise fortitude of 'From a Survivor,' the ground-breaking seminal feminist riposte 'Diving into the Wreck', the powerful and presidential  inauguration speech material 'Storm Warnings' and indeed, the tigers, those stitched and in spirit, of 'Aunt Jennifer Tigers', or the fearless and gutsy admission of her career choice in 'The Roofwalker'? Her poems pack a punch of truth that lingers long after reading. She is one of those rare poets who writes about things that really matter, who infuses her art with her spirit and uses it as a vehicle not only to express emotion, but to also further the cause she was fighting for, while at the same time, never letting it impinge on her abilities, skills and priorities as a writer.

Denise Pop has this to say about her in 'The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States'
(© OUP 1995)

'There is no writer of comparable influence and achievement in so many areas of the contemporary women's movement as the poet and theorist Adrienne Rich. Over the years, hers has become one of the most eloquent, provocative voices on the politics of sexuality, race, language, power, and women's culture. There is scarcely an anthology of feminist writings that does not contain her work or specifically engage her ideas...' 

Adrienne Rich is not only one of my favourite poets, but one of my most admired people.  When I think of how to sum up Adrienne Rich, I think of Aunt Jennifer in her poem 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers,' the woman whose life was blighted with domestic servitude and gender inequality. But still she found time to create, and even after her death, Rich notes that 'the tigers in the panel that she made/will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.' A fitting line to describe Rich and her legacy.

~ Siobhán.

Aunt Jennifer's Tigers - Adrienne Rich

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the trees
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty. 

Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool    
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.    
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band  
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.  
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie    
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.    
The tigers in the panel that she made    
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

The Roofwalker - Adrienne Rich 

Over the half-finished houses
night comes. The builders
stand on the roof. It is
quiet after the hammers, 
the pulleys hang slack.
Giants, the roofwalkers,
on a listing deck, the wave
of darkness about to break 
on their heads. The sky 
is a torn sail where figures
pass magnified, shadows 
on a burning deck.

I feel like them up there:
exposed, larger than life,
and due to break my neck.

Was it worth while to lay--
with infinite exertion--
a roof I can't live under?
--All those blueprints,
closings of gaps
measurings, calculations?
A life I didn't choose
chose me: even
my tools are the wrong ones
for what I have to do.
I'm naked, ignorant,
a naked man fleeing
across the roofs
who could with a shade of difference
be sitting in the lamplight
against the cream wallpaper
reading--not with indifference--
about a naked man
fleeing across the roofs.

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