A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”

Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:

we rape the bees
because they are sweet

because we can

My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.

Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear—to reveal itself to me.

As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?

I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.

It is a matter of consent.

And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.

Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma—one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.

The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.

My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).

The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions ( only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).

A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:

But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.

The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal—and then Baldwin reminds us:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.

Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

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“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

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“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.

While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:

The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”

Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?

While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works—from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy—are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.

Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.

“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”

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The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.

This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.


See Also

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.

 

Daring to Confront Race and Class through Poetry in Trumplandia

My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches

“Half a World Away,” R.E.M.

Writing specifically about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and drawing on powerful words from Toni Morrison, Jocelyn Chadwick, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), argues in We Dare Not Teach What We Know We Must: The Importance of Difficult Conversations:

Our ELA classrooms take our children around the world and beyond—into past, present, and future worlds. We provide safe and trusted spaces for them where difficult conversations can and do take place. If at times teachers, at whatever level they teach, hit a roadblock, perhaps this impediment is due to or own predilections of codifying our students, stereotyping them before we even listen to them, much less get to know them….[T]he last time I checked, we teach students—not colors, not types. Perhaps it is we who need to stop and reread all of the texts we teach from the 21st-century perspective of students’ empowerment— empowerment that our literature provides….It has been some of us who have been demurring, listening to the voices of others, telling us we dare not teach what we know we must. (p. 91)

Published in English Journal in the month the U.S. elected Donald Trump, Chadwick’s confrontation of “some of us who have been demurring” and “difficult conversations” resonates in ways, I suspect, that even Chadwick may not have anticipated.

Toni Morrison’s words after the election also serve teachers of English Language Arts in the same way that Chadwick anchors her argument about our classrooms, the literature we explore, and the discussions we encourage and allow:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Morrison’s lament, we must recognize the weight of both race and social class on the American character. Morrison confronts white privilege and the consequences of that privilege being eroded: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

As teachers of ELA, it is ours to dare, to dare to teach openly against the world within which our students live and within which our classrooms exist. In the spirit of Chadwick’s call to re-read, and I would add re-teach, literature in that light, please consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” from her collection Another America/Otra America provides “safe and trusted spaces” for investigating the increased problems with race and social class in 2016 America.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator”

Kingsolver is best recognized as a novelist—notably for her The Poisonwood Bible—but she is also a brilliant essayist, a skillful poet, and an activist who lives her activism.

Her sole collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, reflects the essential political nature characterizing all of Kingsolver’s work and is published as a bi-lingual collection of Spanish and English versions of all poems (Rebeca Cartes translates Kingsolver’s original English into Spanish).

“What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” provides traditional opportunities to highlight the craft of writing and of poetry, including (through which I will discuss the poem more directly later):

  • The importance and power of titles.
  • Word choice, connotation, and framing/motifs.
  • Pronouns and ambiguity.
  • Character and plot in genres/modes beyond fictional narratives.

To frame the poem in the context of the world within which our students live, however, means that students should be allowed and even invited to connect Kingsolver’s craft with the tensions in public discourse about race and class after the election of Donald Trump—concerns about “deplorables” and debates about if and how to understand white anger/fear as well as the increased focus on the white working class.

The poem reads in full:

The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:
I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

A first reading of the poem should include asking students about the janitor in the title—Who do they see? Is that janitor they envision black or brown? What do they notice about the presence of the janitor in the poem itself?

Here, the students can see how racialized their perceptions are, and then discuss the tension between the janitor being in the elevator and the title, but invisible in the lines of the poem.

How does the poem create a space to discuss the marginalization of people by race, by profession, and by social class?

This central question is further complicated in the poem’s use of color imagery, diction, and pronouns.

In the first line “gold bracelets” triggers social class that shades the conversation between friends (again, who do students see when they imagine these women?) that is being overheard by the janitor in the elevator. Voiceless and seemingly invisible to these women with at least relative affluence, the janitor may represent those same conditions in the U.S. for people of color and people from the working class.

The comments by the “woman in the gold bracelets” are layered and coded:

  • She refers to her fired domestic help as “one” and then also refers to the broken vase as “one”—the ambiguity of the pronoun usage reducing the worker to an object.
  • Word choices such as “worked” and “colors” connote “worker” and “colored” if we extend the poem to race and social class.
  • The suggestion in her comments (“another one”) triggers the implication that the worker is expendable, replaceable, just as the vase may be, although the women appears more concerned about replacing the vase.

And then, the friend’s response forces the reader to reconsider or re-examine a first read with “one that speaks English”—more directly invoking the race and nationality of the worker and opening a door to the political and public debates about undocumented workers.

Presented with a bi-lingual collection, how many students initially see a black man as janitor, but then after the friend’s comment, rethink that assumption since the poem appears to be interrogating the tensions of race, class, and language between whites and Latinx?

The final two lines bring the reader back to “gold,” which frames the poem in color imagery that speaks to materialism and affluence as well as opulence.

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Chadwick quotes Morrison on teaching: “Open doors, let them in, give permission, and see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.”

And while I am skeptical of universality, I am enamored by the enduring that is art, that is literature. Kingsolver’s poem opens doors for her readers—to the enduring tensions of race, social class, and language; to the specter of invisibility and what Arundhati Roy has explained as: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”; and to debates about naming racism and racists.

All texts, all poetry, and then this poem—as Chadwick acknowledges, “we teach students” who live in a flawed and complex world not of their making.

Teachers of ELA have unique responsibilities to engage with our students and the world through the texts we choose and the texts students choose as open doors into the world that our students could build instead.

Poetry in an Era of #BlackLivesMatter

Maybe there is karma, or some confluence of the universe, but earlier today I began contemplating if and how to begin work on an anthology of poetry from poets past and present that speaks to and from #BlackLivesMatter.

And then in my Twitter feed:

Jen Benka, Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, speaks to the incredibly powerful fact that poetry matters in an era of #BlackLivesMatter—anchored by the printing of Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” in the NYT.

Hughes has been much on my mind recently—his “Let America Be America Again,” “Theme for English B,” and “Harlem,” notably [1].

As a poet and a teacher, I have been struggling with race and racism as well: first spring (Baltimore is burning) and Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.

Benka pointed to these poetic responses: what the dead know by heart, Dante Collins; A Small Needful Fact, Ross Gay; and the bullet was a girl, Danez Smith.

Maybe I am too hopeful as a poet, and reader of poetry, but I am compelled to think we may well need an anthology of poetry past and present to help begin the healing.

Anyone? Anyone?

Until (if) this idea gains momentum, please send me a list of poems (and if accessible online) to add below.

“Incident,” Countee Cullen

“Allowables,” Nikki Giovanni

The Talk,” Jabari Asim

“Middle Passage,” Robert Hayden

from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: “Cornel West makes the point…,” Claudia Rankine


[1] See also Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again” and Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.

Recommended: The Brave and The Beautiful of Hera Lindsay Bird and Mary Ruefle

…the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time.

“I Remember, I Remember,” Mary Ruefle

In many ways as a writer, I am a coward.

And in all ways, I worship and am deeply jealous of rock stars, actors, and professional writers—for the freedoms they live as a consequence of their gifts turned into professions.

I am idealizing, of course, but that is how we dream, right?

And then one day not too long ago, I came across ‘s poetry. My first experience was Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind. I was immediately enamored and could only think “brave.”

I read it over and over and then began my usual online stalking, finding other poems and realizing she is on Twitter.

And so when I read poetry that triggers in me my Kafka rule* for literature, I am also gifted in my own writing—so from Bird’s bravery, I wrote chrysalis (i hold my words in awe), tiptoeing myself into the shallow waters of bravery.

But Bird has proven today to be the gift that keeps on giving—Tweeting out a poem by Mary Ruefle, Snow, which added to “bravery” what I also see in Bird, “beautiful”:

…I would like to be in the classroom — for I am
a teacher — and closing my book stand up, saying
“It is snowing and I must go have sex, good-bye,”
and walk out of the room….

For the umpteenth time a few nights ago, I was watching Notting Hill and crying on the couch alone because there are moments of poetry in that, I think.

All sorts of art, when brave and beautiful, help us appreciate this delicate thing called living, nurtured as it is by this impossible thing called loving.

So this is my way of paying it forward—from Bird and Ruefle to you, dear readers.

Please explore Bird and Ruefle:

The fearless poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird, Felicity Monk

Interview: Hera Lindsay Bird

Hera Lindsay Bird (website)

Hera Lindsay Bird online poetry

Mary Ruefle (website)

Mary Ruefle (poets.org)

Mary Ruefle (Poetry Foundation)

Mary Ruefle (Wave Books)

I Remember, I Remember, Mary Ruefle


* See here:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Investigating Text with Writers

In a previous post, I stressed the importance of listening to published and successful writers to guide the formal teaching of reading (texts) and writing.

While Neil Gaiman, for example, provides English teachers a wealth of writing about books, bookstores, libraries, and writing, many writers talk and write about their lives as readers and writers, and as English teachers, we should be seeking to build a toolbox of writers on texts and writing for our classrooms and students.

Poet Matt Olzman offers such an opportunity.

In an interview, Olzman discusses aspects of his writer’s life of a poet that speak to key aspects of formal writing instruction. Inviting students to compare what Olzman explains to their own understanding of key concepts about text and writing helps avoid overly simplistic and school-only versions of reading and writing.

On daily writing, inspiration, the writing process, and revision:

It’s very rarely a matter of inspiration. I try to write a little every day, and that quickly wipes out your reservoir of backup ideas. Often I sit down, unsure what I’m going to write. I like writing just for the process of writing. I like the way it makes me slow down and think something through. Sometimes it’s just writing out thoughts, writing a scene, writing a sentence, and then if something sparks or seems promising when I return to it, then that’s when the real work often begins: revising and developing the idea. I think C. Dale Young once said that drafting a poem is like an artist gathering materials, but revising a poem is an artist shaping the materials. So the poem truly begins in revision, when I have something that I want to try to expand and develop.

More on revision:

In revision, one of two things usually happens. I can tinker at a poem, just making small changes—a word here or there, line ending, inverting the order of two different clauses—or a complete reimagining of the entire poem. I might like the first stanza, but I not anything else that follows, so I restart using that stanza. Or there might have been an idea that I was trying to convey, but I’m not excited about any of the ways I actually said it. Small adjustments, or a massive overhaul. It seems to vary between those two extremes.

On form (connect to genre and mode):

If I’m writing a received form like a sonnet or a villanelle, those never happen by accident, so you have to just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a villanelle or a sonnet,” but with free verse, the form can sometimes come more organically, and the shaping starts to happen later in the drafting process. But I think that all poems, in some way, have some sort of formal structure, whether it’s rhetorical, tonal, etc. I don’t know what a formless poem would look like.

On audience, readers:

It’s hard to even guess. I think that the biggest challenge for a writer is to be able to anticipate what the reader is feeling, to look at your own work through a stranger’s eyes and imagine what they’ll experience when reading it. Are they going to be surprised? Are they going to be confused? You’re constantly trying to walk a very fine line between things being spelled out too much and the poem becoming boring and predictable or the opposite: being too elliptical and the poem becoming confusing. You’re always having to guess how the reader is going to be responding. I think the thing you strive for most as a writer is tension or interest. You just want the reader to want to make it from one line to the next and to feel like they’re not necessarily laboring or confused or left behind or fading out. So engagement is something you’re always pushing toward as a writer.

On the influence of other poets (writers):

There are many poets I admire. The list is somewhat infinite. But for a book that has a single subject that binds the whole collection together, I was just rereading Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which talks about Lead Belly’s life and the world he lived in, and all the poems are about that one title character. My wife, Vievee Francis, is a poet who can return to a single subject and mine it for material in a way that I’m not able to do. If she wrote about a glass of water, there’d be a poem about the person who made the glass, a poem about the river where the water came from, a poem about human thirst in general, and suddenly she’d have ten poems on that one subject. It’s a way of seeing the world that I really admire….

I think every book I read probably influences me in some way, but some of the poets I’ve recently been returning to are poets like Wislawa Szymborska, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, some of my teachers such as Steve Orlen, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Martha Rhodes, Brooks Haxton—they’re poets who taught me, both as my teachers and through their writing. Also, a lot of contemporary poets like Jamaal May, Tarfia Faizullah, Cathy Linh Che, Patrick Rosal, and Jennifer Chang. And, of course, Vievee. The list is kind of endless. I think most writers are always in conversation with the writing of the world around them.

Collecting powerful and complex discussions of texts, reading, and writing from professional poets allows our formal instruction in reading/text and writing to gain a higher level of authenticity, complicating and enriching the aspects of responding to text and classroom writing that too often push students away from reading and writing.

Connecting Olzman’s comments above to his poetry, then, can be an effective series of classroom activities that allow students to discover and create their own developing understanding of how to read and re-read, write and re-write the world.

Some of Olman’s poems available online include:

Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz 

The Millihelen and Wreckage Gallery

Notes Regarding Happiness

Four Letters: Letter to a Dead Goldfish, Letter to the Flying Dutchman, Letter to Jennifer Chang and Evan Rhodes Regarding a Variation in the Fabric of Time, Letter to The New Year

The Resurrections of Adrienne Rich: “in a tunnel of silence”

Graceless
Is there a powder to erase this?

“Graceless,” The National

“Yes, she is a problem for me,” Adrienne Rich opens in her “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry” (Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985), “as I read and reread the published work and some of the unpublished—copies of letters, interview transcripts, essays.”

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To follow is a series of parallel “As I” sentences in which Rich muses on Hansberry (“a Black woman trying to write both from ‘within the Veil,’ as she once put it, and for a public which included Black women and men, but whose dominant expectations and mythic opinions about the world were shaped by white males”), leading to:

Lorraine Hansberry is a problem to me because she is Black, female, and dead….The problem begins for me when, in reading Les Blancs, I do not know when I am reading dialogue written by Hansberry and when I am reading the end product of the process Nemiroff describes….All this may be forthright and devoted enough, and it may seem graceless to question the end result. But I do question it….But biography by a former husband and literary executor is not the same as autobiography.

This “problem” builds to Rich acknowledging “the limitations of my experience as a white woman.” Rich confronts that “within white feminist criticism itself there have been notable silences, erasures”—and “[t]he Black woman writer, as Barbara Smith has noted, suffers from double erasure.”

In fact, “[t]he study of silence has long engrossed me,” Rich writers in her “Arts of the Possible,” the eponymous essay of her 2001 collection of essays:

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

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Rich as woman, as gay. Rich as poet, essayist—artist at “deep levels.”

She has presented to us in autobiography/biography that is a poet’s/artist’s work a series of resurrections, exposing who she has been and who she becomes. She has been daughter, wife, and mother; she has been lesbian lover—just as one way through association (the sorts of associations Rich exposed and confronted, “shaped by white males”) to view her metaphorical deaths and resurrections.

Rich struggling through Hansberry is Rich wrestling with her many selves—none of them perfect but all of them the richness of words crafted.

With Rich’s literal death, a new door of resurrections has opened—post mortem biographies, literary criticism, and unpublished works.

But June 2016 brings the most recent resurrection, Collected Poems: 1950-2012.

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It is a simple, understated cover for a work of great physical heft, over 1100 pages in hardback—a work that resurrects Rich the poet in toto. What more could a poet want? What more could a poet dread?

If you have been on Rich’s journey for many, many years—as I have—this volume is redundant but inescapable and invaluable, a Siren’s call to those of us who love books, desire collecting.

rich bookshelf

1119 pages into her body of work, Rich leaves us with words that seem haunted with James Baldwin (see her “The Baldwin Stamp”):

The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame

To read Rich’s entire body of published poetry draws me back to her “Diving into the Wreck,” a tour de force of personal and social commentary as poetic genius.

In death, Rich’s collected poetry presents “a book of myths” as revolt, as liberation—as a problem for everyone holding this heaviest of resurrections that is Rich and is not Rich.


See Also

Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins