A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far

Adrienne Rich, one of my favorite poets, died this week. I’d never heard of Adrienne Rich before September 1994, when I studied three of her poems, “Diving into the Wreck“, “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev”, and “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law“, in my UCSC freshman core course. (The professor was British and referred to her as Add-rienne Rich, not Aid-rienne Rich, so that’s what I called her initially, too.)

I was never very good at analyzing poems, and the essays I wrote about her poems weren’t very good either. I hadn’t fully learned how to think critically about a piece of writing. I still wanted to write about my emotional connection to a work; I didn’t want to dissect it or pull it apart to look for a deeper meaning. And I’d had an emotional reaction to the poems. “Diving into the Wreck” seemed like an apt description of my first lonely and disorienting months away from home. While everyone else appeared to easily adapt to living in the dorms, I felt completely out of place — and that’s what I related to in this passage from “Diving into the Wreck”

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs and besides
you breathe differently down here.

That Adrienne Rich lived in Santa Cruz and, at times, wrote about the area made her words seem even more true to my own experience. As in “An Atlas for a Difficult World”, I, too, was living

Within two miles of the Pacific rounding
this long bay, sheening the light for miles
inland, floating its fog through redwood rifts and over
strawberry and artichoke fields, its bottomless mind
returning always to the same rocks, the same cliffs, with
ever-changing words, always the same language
—this is where I live now. If you had known me
once, you’d still know me now though in a different
light and life…

My years in Santa Cruz still feel like a “different light and life” to me.

During college, I worked at Bookshop Santa Cruz and Adrienne Rich came in from time to time. A coworker pointed her out to me initially. She was shorter than I’d expected and she often walked with a cane. She had the same short haircut that is shown in the photos accompanying her obituaries, and she hardly said a word. Once, I rang up her purchases. I don’t remember what she bought; I just remember that I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what to say. Would she appreciate being recognized or did she prefer to shop anonymously? Would she want to know that this college student in ripped jeans and highlighted hair owned four of her books and underlined the passages that she found particularly moving?

The truth is, I don’t think I ever really “got” her poems the way she might have intended. I learned to read more critically in college, but I always struggled with poems, which I still read more for a feeling. Some of Rich’s obituaries refer to her as angry — the New York Times mentioned her “towering rage” — but the lines that I’d underlined in her books weren’t angry, at least not the way I’d read them.

Since I left Santa Cruz, I’ve kept Rich’s books on my shelves, but I haven’t leaned on them the way I used to. Until I read that Rich had died, I hadn’t thought much about Adrienne Rich or my Santa Cruz days and when I did look back at that time in my life, I was reminded of Rich’s lines from the end of “An Atlas of a Difficult World”

…These are not the roads
you knew me by.  But the woman driving, walking, watching
for life and death, is the same.

(Note: The title of this post is taken from an Adrienne Rich book of the same name).

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