When I was twenty four, I had a crush on an older woman who was a writer, and late in August in the summer of our courtship, she wrote an email to me which simply said, “I just found out that Grace Paley died and all I want to do today is cry for her.”
I was young and sadly unversed in Grace Paley and her importance. Her name at the time was on my desk, scrawled on a post it note of authors I kept hearing about but never seeking. Mostly, though, I was surprised and a little envious that the death of a writer could move this woman to tears. Did we have permission to feel such grief? That evening I went to St. Mark’s Bookshop found a copy of The Collected Stories of Grace Paley on the shelves. I was wearing shorts and a small white tank top and was that day carrying a typewriter with me. I sat on the typewriter case, hunched in the far corner of the bookstore, and read as much Grace Paley as I could. It was not a summer that I could afford books which weren’t from the library, but I stood anyway and bought the book and read it the entire train way home. Nothing really happened between the older woman and me, but I had Grace Paley, and I was grateful.
On Monday of this week I went to Housing Works for a party for Sugar, who is really Cheryl Strayed, who has just published her memoir Wild, which is about a young woman finding herself on a three month hike along the Pacific Coast Trail. At the party, a parade of writers stood up and read Sugar’s writing from the heartbreakingly honest and lovingly constructed advice column she pens for The Rumpus. I glowed, hearing aloud the familiar words, the words that struck deep inside of me: “Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else,” and “Do it so righteously that we can’t help but look,” and “I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” Sometimes when I lift my nose from the grindstone, there are those beautiful examples of why we get up on any given day of the week and make the choice to work, to write, to create, to find ourselves.
Tuesday night I started reading Wild , lying in my bed, which is positioned in my tiny bedroom beside a jam packed bookshelf. Tucked in the back of Wild is a list of the books Strayed burned while on the PCT; every book she brought with her was burned or traded, except for one: Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language.
I own two Adrienne Rich books, and because something had recently possessed me to alphabetized my haphazard shelves, found that they were only an arm’s length away from where I laid in bed. One was The Fact of a Doorframe. The other was a slim used copy of The Dream of a Common Language, which I had once purchased from the Strand, part of a plan to slowly buy piles of books of poetry for two friends’ wedding gift. I never purchased more than three books and later forgot my plan, but I apparently I did own this same book that Cheryl Strayed found valuable enough to carry for three months in the wilderness and never burn. Pulling the two books from the shelves, I took them to bed with me.
I can tell you exactly where and when I purchased The Fact of a Doorframe: I was twenty-three and suffering, and it was fall becoming winter, and it was the now gone Coliseum Books on 42nd Street. That day I purchased The Fact of a Doorframe and also Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Good choice,” the cashier said, and I blushed, of an age and an emotional state where I was grateful to be acknowledged by anyone in the world. The Fact of a Doorframe I knew to purchase because the woman I was sleeping with at the time had a beloved copy. She was really a friend of mine, and the sleeping together was just a dangerous accident. She was a friend I talked about poetry with all of the time. The night we met I tried to drunkenly recite an entire Kenneth Koch poem for her. And I may not be remembering it right, but perhaps I knew the title The Fact of a Doorframe because she and her ex-girlfriend each had a copy when they had moved in together, and it was delightful, to have two copies of such a great volume, snug together on the shelf.
I could spend hours reading poetry. I would gorge myself on it for days, sampling from one book, and then another, cross referencing them, reading poems out loud to myself over and over. At the time I lived alone in Harlem, and would memorize poems, or write them on pieces of loose leaf and tack them to the walls. My first year in New York I had a college professor who told us with confidence, “Poetry saves lives.” I never had reason to doubt him.
Adrienne Rich: I fell in love with her immediately, immediately. I loved Song, and The Burning of Paper Instead of Children, and Delta, and Twenty-One Love Poems, and Dialogue. And, oh, what it did to a young queer heart to read lines that so awesomely showed women in love! I read those lines again, and again, and again. She was so much: justice and cities and literature and history and religion and lesbian and society and femaleness and outsider and ally and poet and radical and mother and lover.
Ideal Landscape I wrote out by hand and taped to the wall above my desk. Not long after this, the dark brace that barely held my life together broke fully, and I sought change. I stopped drinking, and asked for help, and was trying to unfurl myself from the self-inflicted bondage of my many mistakes. Poetry made this possible, an essential cornerstone in the foundation I was building, beginning in that apartment in Harlem, when I was young. The Fact of a Doorframe never left my bedside.
I only left that Harlem apartment because I was mugged, one hot June evening, in a sundress, in the hallway of my building. The after effect of fear was immense, but the relief that I had not been hurt was even greater. Still, I moved to Brooklyn, closer to friends, a new beginning. Six months later, a man lifted a gun to my head in the shadow of a brownstone and said, plainly, Give me everything. I did. The fear multiplied, anger erupted from depths I had not realized I possessed. Was this a message to leave New York, the city beloved? Was this what it meant to be a young woman in the world? I can only say this: that I would never leave, and that everything, everything that I experienced I could find in the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I picked up her books and found them beautiful, new.
And so, years later, I am here, on a Tuesday night: The Fact of a Doorframe was the same, with dog-eared pages, stanzas boxed with rough pencil, and my own handwriting filling up the end papers, the blank space. Before I knew it, more than an hour had passed, me thumbing through the pages, running my mouth over her words. Gratitude was not enough to contain what I felt for Adrienne Rich.
Tonight, I was in the city, having dinner with friends at a cafe on St. Marks Place. As is the habit of every modern New Yorker, as we waited for the check I looked at my phone, my e-mail, my Facebook. Someone I knew had posted Song, one of the very poems I’d been reading the night before: you’re wondering if I’m lonely, it began. And then I saw: they were all posting her poems. Adrienne Rich had died.
I was instantly reminded of what had been written to me the August I was twenty-four, and I understood: yes, yes we have the permission to grieve. Of course we do. I thought to myself, I found out today that Adrienne Rich died, and all I want to do today is cry for her. Even at a table with friends I felt suddenly bereft in the news. Gone! There was an embarrassing pang of loneliness in me, a yearning for someone to come home to, someone who would share this, another witness. I wanted to sit on a bed and read her poems aloud to another person for the rest of the evening. Writing itself was at its core an action of isolation, and I did not want to go home to it. I wanted more. This was my process for loss.
I am sure at this very moment there are people who are better articulating than I could Adrienne Rich: her immense power and influence, grace and talent. All I can say is that I am sad. Her’s is a poetry that at many moments in my life has, indeed, saved me. It is a blessing that when we lose beautiful poets we do not also lose their poetry. Hold tight to it. Read it aloud to someone. Hand copy her words and put them in your home. In the foreward to The Fact of a Doorframe, Adrienne Rich writes, “A poem may be written in a moment but it does its work in time.” Tonight I am humbled by time, and I am greatly humbled by poetry, and I am forever indebted to Adrienne Rich.
Origins and History of Consciousness
Night-life. Letters, journals, bourbon
sloshed in the glass. Poems crucified on the wall,
dissected, their bird-wings severed
like trophies. No one lives in this room
without living through some kind of crisis.
No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.
Thinking of lovers, their blind faith, their
my envy is not simple. I have dreamed of going to bed
as walking into clear water ringed by a snowy wood
white as cold sheets, thinking, I’ll freeze in there.
My bare feet are numbed already by the snow
but the water
is mild, I sink and float
like a warm amphibious animal
that has broken the net, has run
through fields of snow leaving no print;
this water washes off the scent—
You are clear now
of the hunter, the trapper
the wardens of the mind—
yet the warm animal dreams on
of another animal
swimming under the snow-flecked surface of the pool,
and wakes, and sleeps again.
No one sleeps in this room without
the dream of a common language.
It was simple to meet you, simple to take your eyes
into mine, saying: these are eyes I have known
from the first…. It was simple to touch you
against the hacked background, the grain of what we
had been, the choices, years…. It was even simple
to take each other’s lives in our hands, as bodies.
What is not simple: to wake from drowning
from where the ocean beat inside us like an afterbirth
into this common, acute particularity
these two selves who walked half a lifetime untouching—
to wake to something deceptively simple: a glass
sweated with dew, a ring of the telephone, a scream
of someone beaten up far down in the street
causing each of us to listen to her own inward scream
knowing the mind of the mugger and the mugged
as any woman must who stands to survive this city,
this century, this life…
each of us having loved the flesh in its clenched or loosened beauty
better than trees or music (yet loving those too
as if they were flesh—and they are—but the flesh
of beings unfathomed as yet in our roughly literal life).
It’s simple to wake from sleep with a stranger,
dress, go out, drink coffee,
enter a life again. It isn’t simple
to wake from sleep into the neighborhood
of one neither strange nor familiar
whom we have chosen to trust. Trusting, untrusting,
we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves
downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered
over the unsearched… We did this. Conceived
of each other, conceived each other in a darkness
which I remember as drenched in light.
I want to call this, life.
But I can’t call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.