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“at least as beautiful as any boy or helicopter”

Lesbian-feminist poet, essayist, and activist Adrienne Rich died this week at 82.

Adrienne Rich in 1987 (Photo by Neal Boenzi, New York Times)

Here’s a quote from her poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children“:

I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of today. How well we all spoke. A language is a map of our failures. Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s. People suffer highly in poverty. There are methods but we do not use them. Joan, who could not read, spoke some peasant form of French. Some of the suffering are: it is hard to tell the truth; this is America; I cannot touch you now. In America we have only the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.

Since I’ve been writing too many RIPs these days, that seems to be all I have to say.

I could tell you about the time I heard the line quoted in the title of this post, read out (as it happens) at a memorial service for Simone deBeauvior and was so moved that I tracked down the person who had read it, in order to learn that the poem she had read was Rich’s 1963 “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Or, I could tell you about how heartening it was for me when Adrienne Rich, whilst signing books after a speech she’d given in Ann Arbor, told me to “keep up the good work.” Or, I could dig deeper, dredging up memories of long nights—many long nights, at many different times of my life—when the words of this woman either echoed my own anguish or helped me, so many years younger than she, imagine making my own way to the place of integrity she seemed to reach in her later works.

“But I just don’t have the heart for that right now,” I was going to say. But flipping through online lists of her books (all of mine, alas, are boxed in cardboard at the moment so I cannot flip through the books themselves), I came upon the first line of one of my favorite of her poems, which she wrote at 49 (I am now 50):

A wild patience has taken me this far

And, you know what? That’s true. And useful to remember. So, let me close by thanking Adrienne Rich for reminding me of that, and for all of the poems and essays that remain (despite her death):


Not sure which poems those last two quotes are from? Go searching. Find the words.


1 comment to “at least as beautiful as any boy or helicopter”

  • Charlotte

    I am so upset I’m crying. Thank you for this tribute. She was beyond genius in so many ways — intellectual, emotional, ethical. There is no one to take her place.

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