On the Death of Adrienne Rich

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Celebrity deaths sadden us for a variety of reasons. Some, like Heath Ledger, are mourned because they are lost too soon, at the very height of their creative powers, when there is so much left for them to accomplish. Other deaths are less shocking (Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse) but leave us wondering what if? What if they hadn't gotten involved with the wrong people, weren't harassed by the paparazzi, hadn't started taking drugs, were left alone to create their art? Would they still be with us? Would they still be creating? We are forced to ask these questions, to continually relive these deaths, as we wait for toxicology reports, read interviews with grieving family and friends, and watch elaborate funerals full of sobbing celebrities eulogizing their dear departed friends. 

Adrienne Rich's death saddens me for a different reason--because she isn't receiving the attention her body of work deserves. Now, I know a writer's death is never going to receive the kind of media attention the deaths of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson received. But most important writers receive at least some recognition in major headlines. I still remember when J.D. Salinger and David Foster Wallace died, remember the headlines and the articles that speculated for weeks. (Would we finally learn what Salinger had been writing and hiding in his vault all these years?) Often I will see small headlines on MSN or Yahoo that say "Author of Random Book/Play/Movie Dies at Age ____." The author's name isn't famous enough to grab attention, but the work itself is, at least among a certain population. But what's interesting about Rich's death is that she isn't receiving either type of headline. 

I learned of her death through Facebook, which is where I learn of most celebrity deaths, but instead of a myriad of "RIP Adrienne Rich"s greeting me on my news feed, I found only links to two obituaries by two former colleagues. Both, of course, are English professors or English professors-to-be. When I went looking for coverage of her death, I found no link, no matter how minor, on the Yahoo homepage. I scrolled through all 60 top stories, which highlighted such devastatingly important topics as how hot Kate Winslet is at 36 and how James Franco now resembles K-Fed. (Yahoo does have an article on Rich's death, but it's hidden in Yahoo News under the Entertainment section.) The MSN homepage hasn't been working for me the last few days, so I next turned to Huffington Post, my tried-and-true news source. Unfortunately, there were no mentions of Rich's death on their main page either, and I had to hunt down the obscure "Books" page to find an article on her death. Even then, her death was not the primary headline. No, that was reserved for an article on a new book about a CIA sting to capture "9/11 mastermind."

Is the lack of media attention because Rich was a poet? Because she was specifically (as both headlines made clear) a feminist poet? Reading the (always bigoted) comments on Yahoo leads me to believe so. It certainly isn't because she wasn't famous enough, important enough, loved enough. As the Yahoo article mentions, "her books have sold between 750,000 and 800,000 copies, a high amount for a poet." She won the National Book Award and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton (which she refused). Her poems are in nearly every anthology of twentieth-century poetry (by a scholarly press) you can find. 

I was eighteen and in my second semester of college when I discovered Rich. She would later become required reading in countless poetry, creative writing, and women's literature courses I took, and was one of fifteen twentieth-century authors I was required to read for my master's-level comprehensive exams. But it's that first time I was introduced to her, sitting in my dorm room, lonely, lost, and trying to figure out who I was and what it meant to be a writer, that I sat down with my Intro to Literature textbook and read "Diving into the Wreck." The same poem that I have named not one but two blogs after (and have discussed here), that is so achingly beautiful and intimidatingly profound that my heart races every time I read it. The poem that I am going to leave you with today.

Diving Into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

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 away 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
in which
our names do not appear.


Wingding March 29, 2012 at 10:06 AM  

To be honest, I'm not surprised by the lack of attention. She was nearly everything the world refuses to see/acknowledge: lesbian, feminist, liberal, woman, poet.

Tawnysha Greene March 29, 2012 at 10:19 AM  

It's sad that her death has not generated more attention. She was such a voice for women and poetry. So sad to see her go...

Lacy Marschalk March 29, 2012 at 10:21 AM  

I'm not surprised either, C., just saddened. It's just another confirmation of what you said, that the world we live in is too bigoted/sexist/homophobic/anti-intellectual to see beyond the exterior and value the person/artist within. And that last line of "Diving into the Wreck" is ringing especially true today.

Wingding March 29, 2012 at 11:59 AM  

I think what's truly tragic for me is that the value the work itself is ignored. If the person/artist can't be mourned his/herself, then at the very least, mourn the cessation of a body of work that truly does what it was mean to do: inspire people to action.

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