My friend and writing colleague Ilana de Bare has posted a terrific piece on her blog, Midlife Bat Mitzvah, about Adrienne Rich, who died on Tuesday. Like, I suspect, a lot of women, I heard about Rich before I ever read her poems. And when I did, I was in grad school taking a seminar on the poetics of desire. I must admit, I remember Rich’s name on the syllabus more than I recall her actual poetry. That distinction goes to images from W. H. Auden (on giving head to a younger man) and from a fellow grad student who called the putting on of a wedding ring a “finger fuck of gold.”
I was in mourning during that seminar, so – despite my memory of the gold band and the blow job – I was drawn to the eulogies. The poem that gobsmacked me that term was “The Next Story,” four stanzas by Pattiann Rogers about a group of jays that “screamed / with their whole bodies from the branches” and “swept across the lawn / into the oleanders, dipping low” as they mourn one of their own, killed by a cat.
Reading of the “shard / upon shard of frantic and crested descent, / jagged slivers of raucous outrage,” of “their inconsolable fear” amazed me. Those images spoke to me, as nothing had yet or has since, of what I’d known, the year before, when my brother was killed. A “perfect lament” indeed, Rogers’ poem asks the old anguished question Why? but in a way that resists “the old stories” of easy solace.
The poem’s speaker slams into the notion of death as “a limitation of vision, a fold / of landscape, a deep flax-and-poppy-filled / gully,” a “pleat in our perception.” This speaker, this poem, knows how insufficiently those old stories serve against the sheer, pure scream of anguish. After a year of sympathy cards telling me “he’s in a better place,” and “God has his reasons,” of pastel-hued views of what a friend called “cotton candy heaven,” I wept with relief at reading Rogers’ poem.
Rich’s poetry screams a clarion call, too, one (as Ilana writes in her blog) of “a modern-day incarnation of a Biblical prophet — driven by a moral compass, speaking truth to power, and speaking it with precision, clarity and beauty.”
That linking of poetry and prayer, of prophecy and precision, moved me this morning. What poets have issued a clarion call that spoke to you? What poems, years later, do you recall for how they spoke the unspeakable?