Adrienne Rich

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This Is My Third And Last Address To You
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I'm feeling very honored and challenged to be here, to be here to honor Emily Dickinson, to be here as part of this event as a whole, and I feel very challenged to be in the company of such great women. I'm going to start with a poem of mine in the middle of which Emily Dickinson appears and in the middle of which I address her. It's not entirely of or about her. I had a written a poem back in the sixties, the early sixties, addressed to her, called "I'm in Danger, Sir," a quotation from a letter she had written to Thomas Higginson. He reproves her meters, and she writes to him and says, "You think my gait spasmodic, I am in danger, sir." But I'm not going to offer that poem; I'm going to offer the last poem that I have written for her, and I mean by that the Last. That's what this poem's all about. In between I wrote a long essay about her. When all of her work finally became obtainable in its original versions, I began to study it for the first time as a huge body of work, containing many unexpected and remarkable poems which were nowhere anthologized and which weren't even being talked about. The name of this poem of mine is "The Spirit of Place." I started writing it when, with my woman friend, lover, comrade, I moved into the valley of western Massachusetts where Emily Dickinson was born, and lived all of her life. And I was occasionally asked, half jokingly, if I had moved there to be near Emily, and I acerbicly answered "no." This is "The Spirit of Place," and parts of this poem are addressed to my friend, lover, and comrade, and parts of poem are addressed to Emily Dickinson:

I.
Over the hills in Shutesbury, Leverett
driving with you in spring     road
like a streambed unwinding downhill
fiddlehead ferns uncurling
spring peepers ringing sweet and cold

 

while we talk yet again
of dark and light, of blackness, whiteness, numbness
rammed through the heart like a stake
trying to pull apart the threads
from the dried blood of the old murderous uncaring

 

halting on bridges in bloodlight
where the freshets call out freedom
to frog-thrilling swamp, skunk-cabbage
trying to sense the conscience of these hills

 

knowing how the single-minded, pure
solutions bleached and desiccated
within their perfect flasks

 

for it was not enough to be New England
as every event since has testified:
New England's a shadow-country, always was

 

it was not enough to be for abolition
while the spirit of the masters
flickered in the abolitionist's heart

 

it was not enough to name ourselves anew
while the spirit of the masters
calls the freedwoman to forget the slave

 

With whom do you believe your lot is cast?
If there's a conscience in these hills
it hurls that question

 

unquenched, relentless, to our ears
wild and witchlike
ringing every swamp.

 

II.
The mountain laurel in bloom
constructed like needlework
tiny half-pulled stitches piercing
flushed and stippled petals

 

here in these woods it grows wild
midsummer moonrise turns it opal
the night breathes with its clusters
protected species

 

meaning endangered
Here in these hills
this valley     we have felt
a kind of freedom

 

planting the soil     have known
hours of a calm, intense and mutual solitude
reading and writing
trying to clarify     connect

 

past and present     near and far
the Alabama quilt
the Botswana basket
history     the dark crumble

 

of last year's compost
filtering softly through your living hand
but here as well we face
instantaneous violence     ambush     male

 

dominion on a back road
to escape in a locked car     windows shut
skimming the ditch     your split-second
survival reflex taking on the world

 

as it is     not as we wish it
as it is     not as we work for it
to be

 

III.
Strangers are an endangered species

 

In Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst
cocktails are served     the scholars
gather in celebration
their pious or clinical legends
festoon the walls like imitations
of period patterns

 

(...and, as I feared, my "life" was made a "victim")
The remnants pawed     the relics
the cult assembled in the bedroom
and you     whose teeth were set on edge by churches
resist your shrine
          escape
               are found
nowhere
          unless in words
               (your own)

 

     All we are strangers--dear--The world is not
     acquainted with us, because we are not acquainted
     with her. And Pilgrims!--Do you hesitate? and
     Soldiers oft--some of us victors, but those I do
     not see tonight owing to the smoke.--We are hungry,
     and thirsty, sometimes--We are barefoot--and cold--

 

This place is large enough for both of us
the river-fog will do for privacy
this is my third and last address to you

 

with the hands of a daughter I would cover you
from all intrusion     even my own
saying     rest to your ghost

 

with the hands of a sister I would leave your hands
open or closed as they prefer to lie
and ask no more of who or why or wherefore

 

with the hands of a mother I would close the door
on the rooms you've left behind
and silently pick up my fallen work

 

IV.
The river-fog will do for privacy
on the low road a breath
here, there, a cloudiness floating on the black top

 

sunflower heads turned black and bowed
the seas of corn a stubble
the old routes flowing north, if not to freedom

 

no human figure now in sight
(with whom do you believe your lot is cast?)
only the functional figure of the scarecrow

 

the cut corn, ground to shreds, heaped in a shape
like an Indian burial mound
a haunted-looking, ordinary thing

 

The work of winter starts fermenting in my head
how with the hands of a lover or a midwife
to hold back till the time is right

 

force nothing, be unforced
accept no giant miracles of growth
by counterfeit light

 

trust roots, allow the days to shrink
give credence to these slender means
wait without sadness and with grave impatience

 

here in the north where winter has a meaning
where the heaped colors suddenly go ashen
where nothing is promised

 

learn what an underground journey
has been, might have to be; speak in a winter code
let fog, sleet, translate; wind, carry them.

 

V.
Orion plunges like a drunken hunter
over the Mohawk Trail     a parallelogram
slashed with two cuts of steel

 

A night so clear that every constellation
stands out from an undifferentiated cloud
of stars, a kind of aura

 

All the figures up there look violent to me
as a pogrom on Christmas Eve in some old country
I want our own earth     not the satellites, our

 

world as it is     if not as it might be
then as it is: male dominion,gangrape,lynching,pogrom
the Mohawk wraiths in their tracts of leafless birch

 

watching: will we do better?
The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
of place     who understand travel but not amnesia

 

The world as it is: not as her users boast
damaged beyond reclamation by their using
Ourselves as we are     in these painful motions

 

of staying cognizant: some part of us always
out beyond ourselves
knowing     knowing     knowing

 

Are we all in training for something we don't name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not

 

survive what was done to them     whom we ought to honor
with grief     with fury     with action
On a pure night     on a night when pollution

 

seems absurdity when the undamaged planet seems to turn
like a bowl of crystal in black ether
they are the piece of us that lies out there
knowing     knowing     knowing

The rest of the poems I'm going to present are from a book which is called Your Native Land, Your Life, and I guess it, too, is all about the spirit of place, of many places. Well, these are three short poems called "Poetry."

Poetry I

Someone at a table
under a brown metal lamp is studying
the history of poetry. Someone
in the library at closing time
has learned to say "modernism,"
"trope," "vatic," "text." She is
listening for shreds of music, he is
searching for his name back in the
old country. They cannot learn without teachers.
They are like us. What we were. If you
remember. In a corner of night, a voice
is crying in a kind of whisper more. Can
you remember when we thought the poets
taught how to live? That is not the
voice of a critic, or a common reader.
It is someone young, in anger, hardly
knowing what to ask, who finds our lines,
our glosses, wanting in this world.

And this is called "Poetry II: Chicago." I call it that partly because there used to be a magazine called Poetry Chicago. I think there still is; I never see it anymore. But it was very important to me at one time in my life. And Chicago has been a city of poets. Gwendolyn Brooks, wonderful woman, wonderful poet, is one of them. And I was staying with my son in Chicago when I wrote this poem:

Whatever a poet is at the point
of conception is conceived in these projects
of beige and gray bricks. Yes, poets
are born in wasted tracts like these.
Whatever color, sex, comes to term
in this winter's driving nights, and
the child pushes like a spear, a cry
through cracked cement, through zero air,
a spear, a cry of green. Yes, poets
endure these schools of fear balked,
yet unbroken where so much gets broken
trust, windows, pride the mother tongue
Wherever a poet is born, enduring depends
on the frailest of chances, who listened
to your murmuring over your little rubbish
who you let you be? Who gave you the books?
Who let you know you were not alone? Showed
you the twist of old strands, rapea, hemp or
silk, the beaded threads, the fiery lines
saying "this belongs to you" You have the right
you belong to the song of your mother's and
fathers, you have a people

And this is "Poetry III":

Even if we knew the children were all asleep
and healthy, the ledgers balanced, the water
running clear in the pipes, and all the prisoners
free, even if every word we wrote by then
were honest, the sheer heft of our living
behind it, not these sometimes lax, indolent
lines, these litanies, even if we were told
not just by friends, that this was honest
work, even if each of us didn't wear a brass
locket with a picture of a strangled woman,
a girl-child sewn through the crotch. Even
if someone had told us young, this is not
a key, nor a peacock feather, nor a kite,
nor a telephone. This is the kitchen sink,
the grinding stone, would we give ourselves
more calmly over? Feel less criminal joy?
When the thing comes as it does come,
clarifying grammar and the fixed, immutable
stars.

Well, in a sense, this is another poem about poetry. It's called "Blue Rock" and its dedicated to Miriam Diaz Diocaretz:

Your chunk of lapis lazuli shoots
its stain blue into the wine-glass
on the table. The full moon moving
up the sky is plain as the dead rose
and the alive buds on the one stem.
No this isn't Persian poetry I'm quoting.
All this is here in North America where
I sit trying to kindle fire from what's
already on fire. The light of a blue rock
from Chile swimming in the apricot liquid
called Eye of the Swan this is chunk of
your world, a piece of its heart split
from the rest, does it suffer? You needn't
tell me. Sometimes I hear it singing
by the waters of Babylon in a strange land
sometimes its just lies heavy in my hand,
with the heaviness of silent, seismic knowledge
a blue rock in a foreign land, an exile
excised but never separated from the
gashed heart, its mountains, winter rains
language native sorrow.
At the end of the twentieth century
cardiac graphs of torture reply to poetry,
line by line. In North America, the strokes
of the stylus continue, the figures of terror
are reinvented all night after I turn the lamp
off, blotting wine glass rock and roses, leaving
pages like this scrawled with mistakes and love
falling asleep but the stylus does not sleep.
Cruelly, the drum revolves, cruelty writes
its name.
Once when I wrote poems they did not change
left overnight on the page. They stayed as
they were and daylight broke on the lines
as on the clotheslines in the yard, heavy
with clothes forgotten or left out for a
better sun next day. But now I know what
happens when I sleep and when I wake the
poem has changed, the facts have dilated it
or canceled it and in every morning's light
your rock is there.

This is a poem that I was writing over a whole year. I started out in great difficulty with it and put it away and when I pulled it out again about six months later I realized that difficulty came from the fact that I was trying to write it in very short lines, and that it was kind of crying out to be a poem of very long lines, and that had to do in part with the fact that I'd been reading Whitman and Robinson Jeffers and the Old Testament. In the meantime, it's called "Yom Kippur, 1984," which is when I began it. I finished it about a year later. A lot of the reason that I couldn't finish it sooner is that I had to find out what I was really writing about. It has two epigraphs. One of them is from a poem by Robinson Jeffers who was a California poet and who wrote about the California coast where I'm now living and where I'd just arrived when I started writing this. And his line is as follows: "I drew solitude over me on the long shore." The other epigraph is from Leviticus, and it's a line referring to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and how it shall be made holy. It says, "For whoever does not afflict his soul throughout this day shall be cut off from his people." So I had those two lines to work from:

What is a Jew in solitude?
What would it mean not to feel lonely or afraid
far from your own or those you have called your own?
What is a woman in solitude: a queer woman or man?
In the empty street, on the empty beach, in the desert
what in this world as it is can solitude mean?

 

The glassy, concrete octagon suspended from the cliffs
with its electric gate, its perfected privacy
is not what I mean
the pick-up with a gun parked at a turn-out in Utah or the Golan Heights
is not what I mean
the poet's tower facing the western ocean, acres of forest planted to
the east, the woman reading in the cabin, her attack dog suddenly
     risen
is not what I meanThree thousand miles from what I once called home
I open a book searching for some lines I remember
about flowers, something to bind me to this coast as lilacs in the
     dooryard once
bound me back there--yes, lupines on a burnt mountainside,
something that bloomed and faded and was written down
in the poet's book, forever:
Opening the poet's book
I find the hatred in the poet's heart...the hateful-eyed
and human-bodied are all about me: you that love multitudes may have them

 

Robinson Jeffers, multitude
is the blur flung by distinct forms against these landward valleys
and the farms that run down to the sea; the lupines
are multitude, and the torched poppies, the grey Pacific unrolling its
     scrolls of surf,
and the separate persons, stooped
over sewing machines in denim dust, bent under the shattering skies of
     harvest
who sleep by shifts in never-empty beds have their various dreams
hands that pick, pack, steam, stitch, strip, stuff, shell, scrape,
     scour, belong to a brain like no other
Must I argue the love of multitude in the blur or defend
a solitude of barbed-wire and searchlights, the survivalist's final
     solution, have I a choice? To wander far from your own or those you have called your own
to hear strangeness calling you from far away
and walk in that direction, long and far, not calculating risk
to go to meet the Stranger without fear or weapon, protection nowhere on
     your mind
(the Jew on the icy, rutted road on Christmas Eve prays for another Jew
the woman in the ungainly twisting shadows of the street: Make those be
     a woman's footsteps
; as if she could believe in a woman's god)

 

Find someone like yourself. Find others.
Agree you will never desert each other.
Understand that any rift among you
means power to those who want to do you in.
close to the center, safety; toward the edges, danger.
But I have a nightmare to tell: I am trying to say
that to be with my people is my dearest wish
but that I also love strangers
that I crave separateness
I hear myself stuttering these words
to my worst friends and my best enemies
who watch for my mistakes in grammar
my mistakes in love.
This is the day of atonement; but do my people forgive me?
If a cloud knew loneliness and fear, I would be that cloud.

 

To love the Stranger, to love solitude--am I writing merely about
     privilege
about drifting from the center, drawn to edges,
a privilege we can't afford in the world that is,
who are hated as being of our kind: faggot kicked into the icy river,
     woman dragged from her stalled car
into the mist-struck mountains, used and hacked to death
young scholar shot at the university gates on a summer evening walk,
     his prizes and studies nothing, nothing availing his Blackness
Jew deluded that she's escaped the tribe, the laws of her exclusion,
     the men too holy to touch her hand; Jew who has turned her back
on midrash and mitzvah (yet wears the chai on a tong between her
     breasts)
hiking alone found with a swastika carved in her back at the foot of
     the cliffs (did she die as a queer or as Jew?)

 

Solitude, O taboo, endangered species
on the mist-struck spur of the mountain, I want a gun to defend you
In the desert, on the deserted street, I want what I can't have:
your elder sister, Justice, her great peasant's hand outspread
her eye, half-hooded, sharp and true
And I ask myself, have I thrown courage away?
have I traded off something I don't name?
To what extreme will I go to meet the extremist?
What will I do to defend my want or anyone's want to search for her
     spirit-vision
far from the protection of those she has called her own?
Will I find O solitude
your plumes, your breasts, your hair
against my face, as in childhood, your voice like the mockingbird's
singing Yes, you are loved, why else this song?
in the old places, anywhere?

 

What is a Jew in solitude?
What is a woman in solitude, a queer woman or man?
When the winter flood-tides wrench the tower from the rock crumble the
     prophet's headland, and the farms slide into the sea
when leviathan is endangered and Jonah become revenger
when center and edges are crunched together, the extremities crushed
     together on which the world was founded
when our souls crash together, Arab and Jew, howling our loneliness
     within
     the tribes
when the refugee child and the exile's child re-open the blasted and
     forbid-den city
when we who refuse to be women and men as women and men are char-
     tered, tell our stories of solitude spent in multitude
in that world as it may be, newborn and haunted, what will solitude
     mean?

This is called "North American Time":

I
When my dreams showed signs
of becoming
politically correct
no unruly images
escaping beyond border
when walking in the street I found my
themes cut out for me
knew what I would not report
for fear of enemies' usage
then I began to wonder

 

II
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

 

We move     but our words stand
become responsible
and this is verbal privilege

 

III
Try sitting at a typewriter
one calm summer evening
at a table by a window
in the country, try pretending
your time does not exist
that you are simply you
that the imagination simply strays
like a great moth, unintentional
try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet

 

IV
It doesn't matter what you think.
Words are found responsible
all you can do is choose them
or choose
to remain silent. Or, you never had a choice,
which is why the words that do stand
are responsible
and this is verbal privilege

 

V
Suppose you want to write
of a woman braiding
another woman's hair--
staightdown, or with beads and shells
in three-strand plaits or corn-rows--
you had better know the thickness
the length     the pattern
why she decides to braid her hair
how it is done to her
what country it happens in
what else happens in that country

 

You have to know these things

 

VI
Poet, sister: words--
whether we like it or not--
stand in a time of their own.
no use protesting     I wrote that
before Kollontai was exiled
Rosa Luxembourg, Malcolm,
Anna Mae Aquash, murdered,
before Treblinka, Birkenau,
Hiroshima, before Sharpeville,
Biafra, Bangla Desh, Boston,
Atlanta, Soweto, Beirut, Assam

--those faces, names of places
sheared from the almanac
of North American time

 

VII
I am thinking this in a country
where words are stolen out of mouths
as bread is stolen out of mouths
where poets don't go to jail
for being poets, but for being
dark-skinned, female, poor.
I am writing this in a time
when anything we write
can be used against those we love
where the context is never given
though we try to explain, over and over
For the sake of poetry at least
I need to know these things

 

VIII
Sometimes, gliding at night
in a plane over New York City
I have felt like some messenger
called to enter, called to engage
this field of light and darkness.
A grandiose idea, born of flying.
But underneath the grandiose idea
is the thought that what I must engage
after the plane has rage onto the tarmac
after climbing my old stair, sitting down
at my old window
is meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence.

 

IX
In North America time stumbles on
without moving, only releasing
a certain North American pain.
Julia de Burgos wrote:
That my grandfather was a slave
is my grief; had he been a master
that would have been my shame
.
A poet's words, hung over a door
in North America, in the year
nineteen-eighty-three.
The almost-full moon rises
timeless speaking of change
out of the Bronx, the Harlem River
the drowned towns of the Quabbin
the pilfered burial mounds
the toxic swamps, the testing-grounds
and I start to speak again.

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