May 11, 2012

Gents Who Read Ladies: D. Gilson's Tribute to Adrienne Rich

WEAVE MAGAZINE is committed to celebrating a diversity of voices, including those speaking to, through, or about sex, sexuality, and gender. We also recognize that due praise far too often falls along the separating lines of gender. Thus, we are introducing Gents Who Read Ladies, an occasional series written by one of our male reviewers, offering due praise to one of our favorite women writers. The series begins with D. Gilson’s tribute to Adrienne Rich, a powerful force in both poetry and politics, whose work continues to inspires us both as individuals and as a community. --Weave Reviews Editor, Thom Dawkins

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
—Adrienne Rich, from “For Memory”

The week before I defended my MFA thesis, Adrienne Rich died. The poetry world—and especially the world of poetry-that-can-do-something—lost its matriarch, the woman who, since the early ‘50s, didn’t ride the waves, but made them.

I don’t write these platitudes to make her death about me, or even about our community; but in this time of transition, as I leave the comforts of a graduate program in creative writing to hit the streets, I’m thinking about Rich, and how none of this could be possible without her.

During an undergraduate literary theory course, we were assigned Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” I was beginning to take baby steps out of the closet, manifested by drunken nights at Martha’s Vineyard, the local gay bar, and by a hush-hush tryst with a married professor. And certainly by my reading tastes. What was I reading that semester? I know there was lots of O’Hara and Doty and Virginia Woolf. I was in British Lit, so surely some Wilde. In a theater class, we read The Normal Heart. My poems from this time—atrocious things! but necessary—are filled with men thinly veiled behind gender-neutral pronouns. Looking back a decade later, it was Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken” that was most formative.

“It’s exhilarating,” she writes, “to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.” It seemed Rich had written it just for me! Which is ludicrous, of course, but as a 19-year-old budding homo taking critical theory and women’s studies and poetry workshops, finally, I thought, someone gets it.

Oy vey!

But that part—that someone getting it—is absolutely true. For a generation of others, of women and racial minorities and queers, Rich had opened the door to a valuable new hybridity: that between creative writing and academic discourse. There was so much power there, and Rich was collecting all of us together, making us a part of the conversation, that essential conversation of art and politics and living. “The sleepwalkers are coming awake,” she continued, “and for the first time this awakening has a collective reality; it is no longer such a lonely thing to open one’s eyes.”

It seems dramatic that I would think this, but opening my spiral notebook from that literary theory class, looking at the pages of notes taken while we discussed Rich’s essay, I had written some marginalia in a curlicue, all-caps script: NOBODY CAN FUCK WITH ME NOW. Overstatement, yes. But also some deep truth here. Through conversations with colleagues and presentations at a myriad of academic conferences, I see the thumbprints of Rich everywhere. And thankfully, not only in those other-ed populations, but also in the work of straight white men. They, too, must be a part of the change Rich spent her whole life trying to affect.

Her trying wasn’t in vain, either. We have a lot of work yet to do, but it is work built on the foundation of Adrienne Rich. It seems fitting I would write my first contribution to Weave’s “Gents Who Read Ladies” series with a bit about her. I wouldn’t be a poet or an academic or an agent for change without the words she breathed into the world, a challenge—“Old words: trust fidelity / Nothing new yet to take their place.”

Written by D. Gilson

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