It was 1981 when, in a mildewy Kansas City bookstore, I reached up to a high shelf for something that caught me eye and found the book that changed my life. Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich spoke to me as if Rich herself were sitting across a small table over stale croissants and hot tea, telling me how to be a poet by writing of “a whole new poetry starting here,” composed of women’s lives in all our nuance, gestures, fire and verve.
I started writing poetry years beforehand when I was about 14, running with the usual suspects — T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings (who were like the odd couple to me) before having long flirtations with John Donne, Willie Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (I can still recite sonnet #6), John Keats (but who didn’t have an affair with him?) and a bunch of other dead white people. I spent all my babysitting money, then all my standing-on-a-table-hawking-clothing-at-the-auction (big flea market) money on anthologies of poetry, occasionally dipping into living poets and even being startled awake by Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.”
But it was Dream of a Common Language that broke me out of my dead-poet, bad-boy box into the possibilities poetry afforded a young woman like me. Rich, through each line of each poem, spoke to me with fierceness and determination, “Tell the truth. Use your own voice. Find the edge, and speak to it.” She wrote, “Until we find each other, we are alone” — the last line of “Hunger,” a poet dedicated to Audre Lorde, and yet as a 20-year-old woman, I read that line as a mandate for my life and work as a poet. I still do.
I read Dream of a Common Language so much that the seam simply wore out and the pages spilled if I didn’t hold the book just so. Within a few more years, I had a second copy, but still preferred my barely-held together first copy. Never mind that the middle section of the book is a long love (and lust) poem (composed of 21 sonnets) written to a beloved, a woman. As a relatively straight woman, far younger than Rich, who was older than even my mother, none of our divides mattered. All that Rich wrote spoke to me so acutely that I claimed myself as part of her people, dreaming in the same common language.
When I fell in love for life (or so I hope) with Ken in ’83, I sent him this last stanza in Rich’s poem, “Splittings,” which epitomize for me the highest goal in any relationship:
The world tells me I am its creature
I am raked by eyes brushed by hands
I want to crawl into her for refuge lay my head
in the space between her breast and shoulder
abnegating power for love
as women have done or hiding
from power in her love like a man
I refuse these givens the splitting
between love and action I am choosing
not to suffer uselessly and not to use her
I choose to love this time for once
with all my intelligence
For decades since then, Adrienne Rich has been my secret teacher. I read and reread her poetry, her prose (Of Women Born completely redefined for me what motherhood could be), her words in interviews or articles wherever I found them. I never met her, but I met her constantly in my mind, and she was always and generously teaching me how to be a poet, how to be an activist, how to be a woman, how to be alive.
She tells me what my materials are as a poet and human:
I don’t want to know
wreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materials
and so are the slow lift of the moon’s belly
over wreckage, dreck, and waste, wild treefrogs calling in
another season, light and music still pouring over
our fissured, cracked terrain.
Even now, writing this about her, sitting on my porch on a windy Kansas twilight listening to the wild treefrogs calling right now, I think of her voice — what came through her poetry straight into my soul — and I start to cry. Not because now I can never actually meet her. Simply because I love Adrienne Rich so much, and this gratitude makes my heart break open.