Rest in peace, Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is dead. The beautiful, extraordinary brain who once refused a poetry prize from Bill Clinton, saying art was:

“incompatible with the cynical politics of this Administration.” She told a reporter, “I am not against government in general, but I am against a government where so much power is concentrated in so few hands.”

Adrienne Rich wrote the definitive tract exploring women’s sexuality, when she fisked the idea that heterosexuality is natural rather than socially constructed and socially supported. For women this argument, in 1980, was revolutionary. She explained being lesbian to other feminists.

The white, Jewish, lesbian poet who fought for women’s rights for decades, through prose and poetry. Who explained why white Jewishness was so strongly linked to anti-racism in the USA. Who integrated her identities by acknowledging them:

I have been reflecting on what feels so familiar about all this: to identify actively as a woman and ask what that means; to identify actively as a Jew and ask what that means. It is feminist politics – the efforts of women trying to work together as women across sexual, class, racial, ethnic and other lines – that have pushed me to look at the starved Jew in myself. If Not with Others, How? (1985)

Adrienne Rich wrote about the world and inequality with passion, kindness and anger. She made me consider what I thought about all the grand narratives, in particular white privilege:

This body. White, female; or female, white. The first obvious, lifelong facts. But I was born in the white section of a hospital which separated Black and white women in labor and Black and white babies in the nursery, just as it separated Black and white bodies in its morgue. I was defined as white before I was defined as female. Notes Towards A Politics of Location, (1984)

And she wrote about loving women, just when I was starting to. So deliciously, with such enthusiasm, that there was no doubt this was specifically erotic, this was loving women:

Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine — tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face has come and come —
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there —
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth —
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I have been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave — whatever happens, this is.
The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,
The Dream of a Common Language, Poems 1974 – 1977

I feel as shocked by her death as I would a friend. She has been part of my life, a treasured part of my life, for more than twenty years. I wish those who loved her in person have the chance to mourn her with the grace and honour she deserves. For me, I’m taking two of her books away with me to read while I cycle in our beautiful southern maunga.

REST IN PEACE Adrienne Rich, you are one of my sheros.

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