When I read of Adrienne Rich’s passing in 2012, I experienced an anxiety that the world had become smaller, the rooms less airy, some precious and rare mineral having disappeared. And yet Adrienne Rich left the world larger, the rooms more filled with breath and light, the precious and rare minerals of her language present, potent and lustrous. But I want to stay with what it means when such a poet dies and one feels a polar wandering—as if seconds have been removed from time or the weight of some element, like iron or cerium, has changed. Her work is that big. It occupies a space in the world, a valence. Her absence is felt. “Who will do that work,” you ask, “that sense-making work”? When you read Adrienne Rich, you experience a consciousness engaged by history, modernity, the literary, the ethical.
Listening to this recording, in which she reads from that great book, An Atlas of the Difficult World, one is held by her sense of urgency. Your attention is commanded by someone who must tell you something important at a time when you most need to hear it. She meditates on the longue durée of capital over ideas and gestures to what it means to be human—to be a citizen—under such circumstances. Hers is a poetry of witness and critical observation, a poetry of relentless intelligence. An intelligence that leads with compassion and one you want on your side. It expects you to rise to full awareness no matter how difficult the geography. The effect of her poems is that you emerge from them bigger. To hear her voice is to hear all of her power gathered, all of her intelligence pressed to the page and passed on to you.
Such an intensity, the sound of this poet:
Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms. . .
This is the cemetery of the poor
who died for democracy