When she heard, my friend, poet Cheryl Clarke, called me from Jersey City at about 5:45 in the morning because she needed to talk to someone else who knew Adrienne Rich as she did. She needed to talk to someone on the West Coast, the place from which Adrienne left our world. It was as if she might follow Adrienne’s trail across the continent and catch the last vapor mist of her spirit. It was as if we might feel of her breath in the air one last time the warmth; or hear her voice echoing in the rainbow that the mist created.
I, of course, didn’t answer my cell phone…I was sound asleep as deeply as one usually is in the hours just before the daily alarm is due to go off. But Cheryl needed someone to share the sorrow so she called Diane’s cell, knowing she always answers. It was a strange, awkward, and intimate moment for the three of us. Diane and I curled in bed having a conversation on the speaker phone with Cheryl, my former lover and currently a close friend to us both. Lesbians are something special.
Cheryl and Adrienne shared the same birthday, though Cheryl is a couple of decades younger; that always connected them. That and being poets of the women’s revolution made them related. And it connected Adrienne with people around the globe. The community created by the passion of the lesbian/feminist movement of the 1970s/1980s was fierce, loyal, creative, demanding and unyielding in many ways; which is why more women are free to be who they are today.
Even when the mainstream academy and publishing world was giving her awards…and they gave many…she made them uncomfortable. They didn’t trust her anger with colonialism because most of them were colonialists in their hearts. They didn’t trust her feminism or her lesbianism. Or her unswerving vision which gave her the ability to see through most institutional and philosophical pretense; that made the pretenders uncomfortable.
This doesn’t mean she was infallible or omniscient. She was making her way through the alphabet soup that our movement has become along with the rest of us. Some people didn’t think she made her way fast enough. But I say we all should have grown far past the need to have a goddess pointing our way toward salvation. Understanding that progress is not a one-time thing. Adrienne, like many of our generation, carried the struggle within as well as out in the political arena. She was a thinker in ways that most of us barely aspire to be and she articulated her thoughts and feelings in the most supreme way possible…poetry…a kind of prayer to the world not to some other imagined omniscient being.
There is a perspective which might have been helpful to those who are disturbed by or uncomfortable with Adrienne’s gift for seeing through to the oppression that threatened us all. That is her ability to envision us being better than we currently are. That’s why her poetry sings whether it’s about love or racism or loss; a sense of possibility glowed deep within her no matter how cutting her words were. It’s that possibility we who knew her want to live up to.
In the early morning Cheryl, Diane and I stayed on the line even when there was nothing more to say. We each knew we were somehow different since Adrienne had left us. We couldn’t look toward the rising sun and track her disappearance; the mist of her was gone. We’d lost some fuel, some light, and some song that was always circling in our heads, a soundtrack of the past and the future.
Adrienne did say, “The moment of change is the only poem.”