About a year ago, while I was napping in my hotel room in between sessions at a conference for Baptist scholars of religion, I dreamed I was walking across a plowed field. Out of the black soil grew a single yellow flower. Taken with the flower’s beauty, I went to pick it, when a woman stopped me. “That flower will begin to wither the moment you pluck it,” she said. “If you must take it with you, pull it by the roots and take some of the native soil with you. Your hands will be dirty. You will need to provide your own pot, but you will preserve its beauty a little while longer.” To this day, I remember the woman’s words exactly—partly because I thought it was a pretty cool dream (especially for a napping Baptist), mostly because the woman was Adrienne Rich.
With her recent death, newspapers and journals are blossoming with tributes to Adrienne Rich. They are noting that she inspired generations of women, writers and non-writers alike. They are noting her contributions to LGBT communities. These accounts are correct.
Less named is Rich’s profound sense of religiosity. By a number of criteria, she was not a religious poet or a religious person. Those who believe religious identity reduces to unqualified assent to the right doctrines, possession of the right genes, or endorsement of the right state will find little religious in Rich’s life and work. But Rich has something to offer any person who wrestles with a tradition, and all of its tangled roots and branches, in the hopes of achieving an identity.
A “Non-Jewish Jew”
The daughter of a Jewish father and a gentile mother, born almost astraddle the Mason-Dixon Line, Rich engaged in border negotiations from the outset. According to Jewish law, she was not a Jew; according to Nazi definitions, she would have been Jewish enough for Auschwitz. She was baptized Episcopalian and attended one of this genteel denomination’s Baltimore congregations for a while in her youth. She described her father, a Southern-born professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as an “assimilated Jew.” He was barely what some would call a “cultural Jew.” In her late adolescence and into her college years, she became sensitive to the subterranean presences and conspicuous absences of Jewishness in the home of her upbringing. She realized her Jewishness would always be at once a choice and a kind of irresistible inheritance.
As a Jew, Rich claimed and was claimed by a vast, often internally-dissident tradition (she had the advantage of wrestling with a tradition that had wrestling in its marrow). She also insisted upon claiming and being claimed by a wider birthright than that tradition sometimes allowed. Rich knew she had to claim her Jewish particularity; Jewishness was going to claim her whether she liked it or not. And being a Jew meant not being someone else. But Rich lived with the hope that, paradoxically, she could find something expansive in the particularity—something inside Jewish tradition that operated against that same tradition’s more troubling parochialisms, something that connected her to all of humanity.
She refused to let the tradition go until it blessed her—and others with her. In her 2003 essay, “Jewish Days and Nights,” published first in a collection titled Wrestling with Zion, Rich reflected on “the possibility of a ‘non-Jewish Jew’”:
Not a Jew trying to pass, deny, or escape from the wounds and fears of the community, but a Jew resistant to dogma, separatism, to ‘remembering instead of thinking,’ in Nadine Gordimer’s words—anything that shuts down the music of the future. A Jew whose solidarity with the exiled and persecuted is unrestricted. A Jew without borders.
Outrage, and Possibility
Rich’s approach to her religious identity was of a piece with her approach to every aspect of her identity. For Rich, any identity worth achieving involved struggle and resistance—be it national identity (“a patriot is one who wrestles for the / soul of her country / as she wrestles for her own being”), gender identity (“A thinking woman sleeps with monsters. / The beak that grips her, she becomes.”), or the committed poet’s identity (“She cannot teach the end of bonds; but she can refuse to justify, accord with, ignore their existence”).
This daughter of a fairly well-to-do Baltimore family—raised in part by an African-American domestic worker—also understood the struggle for identity did not occur only among the marginalized, though the struggle became starkly manifest there. Like James Baldwin, one of her primary influences, she knew that victimizing groups were also their own victims, imperiled by the injustices they perpetuated and from which they benefited, consciously and unconsciously. They were in need of a redemption that required the constant witness of marginalized people. Like Baldwin, Rich realized that “oppressor” and “oppressed” were not simple, static, mutually-exclusive categories with lifetime members.
Perhaps more fully than Baldwin, Rich was aware of her own dual memberships. Like Muriel Rukeyser before her, this awareness enabled her to be at once a poet of outrage and a poet of possibility. And Rich knew that a person who had the privilege of denying the unsettling murmurs in his own heart often became astonished and angered when others started acting up and speaking out about their struggles. She knew that she who would not admit struggle within herself would do everything in herself power to sweep the public square clean of struggling others. Anyone who could deny the struggle on any level of existence stood in danger of becoming a terror to all of existence. She knew that she herself stood in danger of succumbing to this moral and spiritual weakness. The beak that grips her…
Certainly, the struggle for identity at society’s presumed centers differs significantly from the struggles at the margins. The achievement and sustenance of a Jewish identity in America is a substantially different project—more complicated and risky—than the achievement and sustenance of, say, an American Christian identity. The same holds true for heterosexuality versus homosexuality, and maleness versus femaleness. I am a heterosexual Christian white man. Whence my struggle? It is not visible to me when I hold the hand of my partner at a restaurant, or walk alone and unworried down a secluded trail, or wear my favorite head covering in public. The price of my ticket in my society seems discounted, on the surface. I need people like Rich to help me understand who is picking up the difference for my discount and what is required of me if I reject that discount to lessen the difference.
The price of any identity worth having is high: a profound struggle. Rich encourages me that I will come away from the struggle blessed, with a new name. She reminds me that I will come away limping.
The Treasures That Prevail
Adrienne died the first full week of spring, just before what I call Holy Week. During this week, I examine with heightened sensitivity my particular buy-in to the cross, the empty tomb, the via dolorosa. I am not always sure I want to be numbered among Christians; I know there are a number of Christians who aren’t so sure I should be so numbered. My examination occurs alongside my spouse’s examination. She is an ordained Baptist minister who with unspeakable grace regularly braves misogynistic condescension: the assumption among even thoughtful, well-meaning people that her spouse possesses the professional, theological mind in the relationship. The struggle for religious identity is a struggle for gender identity for each of us. The Old Ship of Zion is mine—as wreck and as working vessel. Zion by itself is not enough. Adrienne speaks to me across the waters. I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.
Adrienne died during this prematurely refulgent spring. Tree buds are yet to burst here in New Jersey. Flowers are blossoming where little else is blossoming. An Easter people, we Christians like to pick flowers and place them on graves. My Jewish friends inform me it is not customary for Jews to do this.
In 1982, Adrienne Cecile Rich wrapped up her essay, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity,” with these words:
This essay, then, has no conclusions: it is another beginning for me. Not just a way of saying, in 1982 Right Wing America, I , too, will wear the yellow star. It’s a moving into accountability, enlarging the range of accountability. I know that in the rest of my life, the next half century or so, every aspect of my identity will have to be engaged. The middle-class white girl taught to trade obedience for privilege. The Jewish lesbian raised to be a heterosexual gentile. The woman who first heard oppression named and analyzed in the Black Civil Rights struggle. The woman with three sons, the feminist who hates male violence. The woman limping with a cane, the woman who has stopped bleeding are also accountable. The poet who knows that beautiful language can lie, that the oppressor’s language sometimes sounds beautiful. The woman trying, as part of her resistance, to clean up her act.
Sister Adrienne struggled with God and with men and prevailed.
Tagsadrienne richchristiancivil rights movementgenderidentityjames baldwinjewishlesbianlgbtmuriel rukeyserpoetry
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Ryan Harper is a graduate student in the department of religion at Princeton University, where he is completing an ethnography on contemporary southern gospel music. His essays and poems have appeared in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Books and Culture, Sugar House Review, Potomac Review, The Other Journal, and elsewhere. Ryan lives in New Jersey with his spouse, writer and chaplain Lynn Casteel Harper.
Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself. Her earliest work, including A Change of World (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly radical in both its free-verse form and feminist and political content. Rich’s metamorphosis was noted by Carol Muske in the New York Times Book Review; Muske wrote that Rich began as a "polite copyist of Yeats and Auden, wife and mother. She has progressed in life (and in her poems …) from young widow and disenchanted formalist, to spiritual and rhetorical convalescent, to feminist leader...and doyenne of a newly-defined female literature."
Beginning with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962 (1963), Rich’s work has explored issues of identity, sexuality and politics; her formally ambitious poetics have reflected her continued search for social justice, her role in the anti-war movement, and her radical feminism. Utilizing speech cadences, enjambment and irregular line and stanza lengths, Rich’s open forms have sought to include ostensibly “non-poetic” language into poetry. Best known for her politically-engaged verse from the tumultuous Vietnam-war period, Rich’s collection Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973) won the National Book Award; Rich, however, accepted it with fellow-nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker on behalf of all women. A noted writer of prose, Rich’s numerous essay collections, including A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society (2009) also secured her place as one of America’s preeminent feminist thinkers. In addition to the National Book Award, Rich received numerous awards and commendations for her work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. She made headlines in 1997 when she refused the National Medal of Arts for political reasons. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote in a letter published in the New York Times “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”
Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother was a former concert pianist. Rich’s upbringing was dominated by the intellectual ambitions her father had for her, and Rich excelled at academics, gaining her degree from Radcliffe University. In 1953 she married Alfred Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard. She had three children with him, but their relationship began to fray in the 1960s as Rich became politically aware—she later stated that “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” Rich’s work of the 1960s and ‘70s begins to show the signs of that radicalization. Moving her family to New York in 1966, Rich’s collections from this period include Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971), all of which feature looser lines and radical political content. David Zuger, in Poet and Critic, described the changes in Rich's work: "The twenty-year-old author of painstaking, decorous poems that are eager to 'maturely' accept the world they are given becomes a ... poet of prophetic intensity and 'visionary anger' bitterly unable to feel at home in a world 'that gives no room / to be what we dreamt of being.'"
Conrad died in 1970 and six years later Rich moved in with her long-term partner Michelle Cliff. That same year she published her controversial, influential collection of essays Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience (1976). The volume, following on the heels of her masterpiece Diving Into the Wreck, ensured Rich’s place in the feminist pantheon. Rich was criticized by some for her harsh depictions of men; however, the work she produced during this period is often seen as her finest. In Ms. Erica Jong noted that "Rich is one of the few poets who can deal with political issues in her poems without letting them degenerate into social realism." Focusing on the title poem, Jong also denies that Rich is anti-male. A portion of the poem reads: "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." Jong commented, "This stranger-poet-survivor carries 'a book of myths' in which her/his 'names do not appear.' These are the old myths ... that perpetuate the battle between the sexes. Implicit in Rich's image of the androgyne is the idea that we must write new myths, create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm but heal it."
Rich's prose collections are widely-acclaimed for their erudite, lucid, and poetic treatment of politics, feminism, history, racism and many other topics. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979), furthers her feminist aesthetic and contains one of Rich's most-noted essays, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in which Rich clarifies the need for female self-definition. Publishing a new collection every few years, in 2009 Rich released A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society. Rich again explored the intersection of poetry and the political in essays and reviews. San Francisco Gate contributor Michael Roth noted that in the book “Rich continues to refuse to separate the artistic from the political, and she articulates in powerful ways how a truly radical political agenda can draw upon an aesthetic vision.”
Rich’s poetry has maintained its overtly political, feminist edge throughout the decades since the Vietnam War and the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. In collections like Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time's Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (1988), and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991 (1991), Rich begins to address the Jewish heritage that she was forced to hide during her early life. Throughout all three books, Rich uses personal experience, first-person narratives, and rich and varied language. Rich’s later poetry engages both the personal and political in ambitious ways. Though Midnight Salvage, Poems, 1995-1998 (1999) is a quieter collection that focuses on “the quest for personal happiness,” according to Rafael Campo who reviewed the volume for the Progressive, it also circles “the problem of defining 'happiness'—in an American society that continues to exploit its most defenseless citizens, and in the face of a larger world where contempt for human rights leads to nightmare." Such an emphasis on the social conditions of private lives has been a mainstay in Rich’s later work, which often explores the influence of contemporary world events. The School among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004 (2004), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, attempts to capture the myriad events that have defined the beginning of the twenty-first century. The predominantly short prose poems in The School among the Ruins are free verse meditations on "the displacement of exiles, the encroachment of modernity on human dignity, and the effects of America's war against terror on the stateside psyche," noted Meghan O'Rourke in Artforum. Although O'Rourke felt the collection veered too much into "rhetoric," other critics found the juxtaposition of cell-phone and television dialogue stunningly effective.
Rich’s 2007 collection Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth was her twenty-fourth; however, since the mid-50s, Rich has conceived of her poetry as a long process, rather than a series of separate books. Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth continues to use open forms, including notebook-like fragments. The book as whole, noted Lee Sharkey in the Beloit Poetry Journal, is concerned with “dissolution and disappearance…The Rich persona who for half a century has been engaged in a continual process of undoing her own certainties owns up to how those certainties have blinded her.” Layering images and utilizing a stripped-down line help contribute to “the new, still more difficult perspective she has achieved,” Sharkey noted, though Rich “allows no point of resolution in the poem beyond juxtaposed images of cultural, environmental, and personal dissolution.”
Through over sixty years of public introspection and examination of society and self, Adrienne Rich has chronicled her journey in poetry and prose. "I began as an American optimist," she commented in Credo of a Passionate Skeptic, "albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War...I became an American Skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation's leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing."