Sunday Poet: Adrienne Rich

These are the words that made me love Adrienne Rich’s work:

This is what living with children could be – without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being simply, myself.

Driving home once, after midnight, from a late drive-in movie… with three sleeping children in the back of the car, I felt wide awake, elated; we had broken together all the rules of bedtime, the night rules, rules I myself thought I had to observe in the city or become a ‘bad mother’. We were conspirators, outlaws from the institution of motherhood; I felt enormously in charge of my life.

You cannot be writing about feminist motherhood, like I do, without acknowledging the debt our movement owes to Adrienne Rich with Of Woman Born, published in 1976. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than half a dozen of prose but it is her description of motherhood unshackled – an experience I know exactly – that I love best of all and that has made me feel ok about myself as a mother.

Rich died this week, aged 82 years. She was an activist who concerned herself with the struggles of black women, with lesbian women, with Jewish women, with the poor and with mothers. Over her lifetime Rich was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She declined to accept the National Medal of Arts offered to her, and famously only accepted the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 by receiving it as a group award for all women with her fellow-finalists, Audre Lord and Alice Walker on the stage with her. Art means nothing, Rich said, “if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

Unfortunately, she also undoubtedly contributed to the hate speech and phobia executed by the feminist movement against transgender people, particularly through her support of friend, Janice Raymond’s work, The Transexual Empire.

It is difficult to select only one poem for Adrienne Rich, so let’s have two and start with the incredibly evocative poem, Rape.


There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

If at all possible it is best to hear the poet themselves read the poems you love, it is very transportive. Here is Adrienne Rich reading the beautifully accusatory poem, What Kind Of Times Are These?

What Kind of Times Are These?

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Farewell, Adrienne Rich.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, gender & feminism, language, parenting, Sociology, violence

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4 replies

  1. I’m not particularly well-read in the feminist literature, so I rely on places like Hoyden to gradually inform me of names I should know. Thank you.

  2. Thanks. Yes, that whole Janice Raymond thing is awful – especially since Janice has also done so much work against the trafficking of women. I guess even the best of us have our blind spots. But I think that many older feminists spent so much time and energy fighting for the right to equality for women – the right to make their own financial, legal and health decisions, for example – that they become a bit obsessed with the idea that ‘men’ were trying to infiltrate feminism in the same way as they felt they had infiltrated every other part of women’s lives.

  3. It takes more than a blind-spot to help with The Transsexual Empire, a work that directly lead to violence, marginalization, and ostracization, and barriers to healthcare against trans women. That book was a willful act of violence and hatred against trans women, and to couch it in soft language is doing that history, and trans women, a huge disservice.
    She may have fought for cis women, but she certainly didn’t fight for women.

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