75 at 75: Dionne Brand on Adrienne Rich
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Dionne Brand writes about a reading by Adrienne Rich. It was recorded live at 92Y on October 14, 1991.
Posted on April 1, 2015
When I read of Adrienne Rich’s passing in 2012, I experienced an anxiety that the world had become smaller, the rooms less airy, some precious and rare mineral having disappeared. And yet Adrienne Rich left the world larger, the rooms more filled with breath and light, the precious and rare minerals of her language present, potent and lustrous. But I want to stay with what it means when such a poet dies and one feels a polar wandering—as if seconds have been removed from time or the weight of some element, like iron or cerium, has changed. Her work is that big. It occupies a space in the world, a valence. Her absence is felt. “Who will do that work,” you ask, “that sense-making work”? When you read Adrienne Rich, you experience a consciousness engaged by history, modernity, the literary, the ethical.
Listening to this recording, in which she reads from that great book, An Atlas of the Difficult World, one is held by her sense of urgency. Your attention is commanded by someone who must tell you something important at a time when you most need to hear it. She meditates on the longue durée of capital over ideas and gestures to what it means to be human—to be a citizen—under such circumstances. Hers is a poetry of witness and critical observation, a poetry of relentless intelligence. An intelligence that leads with compassion and one you want on your side. It expects you to rise to full awareness no matter how difficult the geography. The effect of her poems is that you emerge from them bigger. To hear her voice is to hear all of her power gathered, all of her intelligence pressed to the page and passed on to you.
Such an intensity, the sound of this poet:
Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms. . .
This is the cemetery of the poor
who died for democracy
In a conversation we had some years ago, Adrienne said to me that she did not agree with Virginia Woolf’s assertion, in Three Guineas, that “as a woman I have no country, as a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” She thought that it might be too easy to arrive there and wanted to remain aware of the acts done for and by nations in all our names.
Adrienne Rich positioned herself very clearly to see what she saw and traced the genealogy of how she became fully cognizant of the discourses of the violence of this nation. An Atlas of the Difficult World is “not about somewhere else, but here.” Not about some time else, but now. That insistence of being awake to the time, awake to the political body, is a thread that she pulls through her poems. We see it also in The Dream of a Common Language and in Dark Fields of the Republic. Her voice fills the space of that idea, describing and amplifying, mapping and excavating sites of internment, incarceration, futurity. The worthwhileness of struggle. She attends to not only the large social apparatus under which we live but the small domestic moments that make up, collude with and are a casualty of that apparatus. An Atlas of the Difficult World is a work I can practically recite by heart. It begins: A dark woman, head bent, listening for something. . . . She creates an intimacy, a summoning of some company, comradeship and companionship. A genuine embrace.
At the time of this reading, she was already on to writing Dark Fields of the Republic. She seems already ahead of us. While in Atlas she layers Muriel Rukeyser’s country from The Book of the Dead, in Dark Fields she attends to Brecht’s Svendborg poems, poems he wrote while fleeing Germany. She reads “What Kind of Times are These?” These are poems from 1988-1995. Around her then, as around us now, was a kind of dread, a kind of silence and accommodation, the creeping capitalization of every square meter of the social. It is in this same vein of refusing to accede to a power accruing to the few and to the wealthy that she would, in 1997, refuse the National Medal for the Arts. I believe we are in that same place now, in need of the same words.
I met Adrienne across the discontiguous spaces of the Americas as a poet I could attend to and have an affinity with. At our first meeting, she gave me a copy of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a gift that measures the breadth of that affinity. She once said to me, “Racism is the shaking ground on which we stand,” and her attention to that throughout her oeuvre is unflinching. In this reading’s penultimate poem, Rich invokes George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, doing a call and answer to his letters from prison, enjoining his voice as radical critic, as conscience, as metal and intellect.
I have a 2007 letter from Adrienne in which she wrote to me that she was thinking again of Toni Cade Bambara and of Du Bois’s book on John Brown. The letter ends, “Anyway: one refuels as one can, from history, love, the beauty of a day with low-skimming hummingbirds and sunflowers, a yellow canna-lily with speckled petals, late-summer light. Take care. La lucha continua—Adrienne.” Her work has always fed me as a poet; her friendship and kindness were wondrous, unexpected and profoundly generous.
The final poem that she reads on this recording begins, “I know you are reading this poem late.” One hears the echo of her voice.
Dionne Brand’s most recent collection of poetry is Ossuaries.
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