I didn’t have time to be devastated on the day Adrienne Rich died, but I still couldn’t keep back the tears.
Like so many others, Rich was The One to me, America’s greatest living everything I ever wanted to be: a titan of poetry, an icon of feminism. The woman who articulated the fundamental truth of female unity: “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.”
There is little I can say about Rich that has not yet been said: that her activism was uncompromising and a beacon, that her work, more than any other, activated me as a poet, that like the aspiring acolyte I was, I stalked her poems and her career like a detective. In this mode, one Rich poem has integrated itself into my literary DNA more than any other: “Modotti,” Rich’s elegy for the revolutionary photographer and activist Tina Modotti. Diving into The Wreck may indeed be Rich’s masterwork, but it is Midnight Salvage, in which “Modotti” appears, that owns my greatest loyalty in her canon.
Your footprints of light on sensitive paper
that typewriter you made famous
my footsteps following you up stair-
wells of scarred oak and shredded newsprint
these windowpanes smeared with stifled breaths
corridors of tile and jaundiced plaster
if this is where I must look for you
then this is where I’ll find you
I open my copy of Midnight Salvage, purchased from a used bookstore in high school, and pieces of my own history quite literally fall from its pages: three old Polaroids, taken for a photographer friend’s portfolio when I was nineteen or twenty, saucy and red-lipsticked. Myself, holding a birthday cake in gartered stockings. Myself, in black camisole. I remember how I pored over these pages at sixteen, twenty, twenty-five, all with equal awe, how my own sexual becoming has been charted in the varied shades of desire to which Rich allowed me a smoldering access.
I discovered this particular poem after seeing the film Frida, in which Modotti is portrayed by Ashley Judd, and presented as a trophy to Salma Hayek’s Frida Kahlo after Kahlo bests Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The two women dance, and share one of the hotter onscreen Sapphic kisses in cinematic history. All too appropriately, I saw the film with the first woman I ever loved, and sent her “Modotti” in an email afterwards, writing Let’s move to Mexico and wear flowers in our hair and drink provocatively. We’ll share an apartment and radical politics and dark-eyed men. It was the kind of absolutely earnest, self-serious correspondence one can only make at nineteen, and in the end, the poem, and the letter that enclosed it, would be the only lasting evidence of that fantasy.
Yet as a young woman in love, I was bitten by the tone of Rich’s pursuit, its fervor, its unwavering determination. Rich’s panegyric to Modotti is clear, direct, and inevitable: Rich does not ask if she will find Modotti, or even where to look. Like a dogged archaeologist, Rich must look, and she will find. The search is sensual—“smeared with stifled breaths”—tinged with revolution, and marred by scars and sickness: the political body in pain. Rich lurks in the shadows of this recovery with notebook and pen, history’s most eloquent journalist.
From a streetlamp’s wet lozenge bent
on a curb plastered with newsprint
the headlines aiming straight at your eyes
to a room’s dark breath-smeared light
these footsteps I’m following you with
Rich’s lines are an excavation, an attempt to return the matter of women’s lives to the hands who wrought them. Her effort to self-align with Modotti is, of course, a laden one. an Italian-born silent actress, Modotti spent the 1920s photographing the revolutionary intellectuals of Mexico: Rivera, Kahlo, and Julio Antonio Mello, her murdered lover, whose typewriter is the subject of Modotti’s most well-known photographs. The circumstances of Modotti’s own death are murky and unresolved, making Rich’s poem a canonization of sorts: an elegy for one of the martyrs of the cause. In characteristic form, Rich dives into the wreck of Modotti’s history, in all its sex, chaos, and revolution, and recovers the lost art.
down tiles of a red corridor
if this is a way to find you
of course this is how I’ll find you
I found Rich in person only once. During my freshman year in college, my best friend and I attended a reading Rich held at Barnard. We sat in the room, crowded with breathless undergrads like us, waiting for Rich to appear. The clock crept five minutes past the appointed start time; the lights dimmed. All of a sudden, a commanding Black figure, haloed with dreadlocks, swept up the aisle to a seat in front, and the whispers cascaded across the room like a cloud of loose feathers: that’s Toni Morrison. Oh my god, Toni Morrison is here. The event was now fraught with new significance; Morrison’s appearance reminded us that the node of Rich was interlinked, with lifelong deliberation, to a whole network of female and literary greatness.
And then Rich herself appeared, already frail in 2002, requiring assistance to ascend the stairs to her podium. A senior girl named Diana Thow had the honor of introducing Rich, thus garnering an envy in me that has prevented me from ever forgetting her name. The poet’s name, I learned, was not AYD-rienne Rich, but ADD-rienne. I committed this information to my heart as though it brought me closer to Rich herself, though in actuality it only brought me many conversations of looking like the pretentious asshole I was as I corrected another’s pronunciation.
I can’t remember what poems Rich read that evening. I only remember sitting in that hushed room enraptured and on the verge of gobsmacked tears for the entirety of her reading. I remember clutching my copy of Midnight Salvage, the very one that sits beside me now, rehearsing what I would say as she signed it. Your work has meant so much to me. I waited in the long queue after the reading, still rehearsing. When I was there, before her, my heroine of heroines, the words inevitably bungled, and what I blurted was You have meant so much to me. She nodded as placidly as a monk, having heard these nervous blurts so many times before, never knowing what they’d mean to me, and reached for the book.
The bristling hairs of your eyeflash
that typewriter you made famous
your enormous will to arrest and frame
what was, what is, still liquid, flowing
your exposure of manifestos, your
lightbulb in a scarred ceiling
well if this is how I find you
Modotto so I find you
Rich herself, in this elegy to Modotti and so many correspondences like it, was a nexus of those full, transformative connections between women. I think of the contemporary who chose her as rival, Sylvia Plath: Plath was, as the legend goes, wildly jealous of Rich’s 1951 Yale Series of Younger Poets, and proclaimed Rich her “only competition.” The two poets’ work is eminently comparable, though undeniably distinct: both came of age before women’s liberation, both made an early passage into marriage and children, and both placed the drama of the female experience, in all its banality and stigma, as the lodestone of their poems. Plath, of course, ceded the competition with her suicide.
In a sense, I think that Rich lived out what Plath could not: a full and varied life of letters, thirty books, a self-actualized liberation from the constraints of domestic life. Rich identified as a feminist, claimed the title as a mantra; Plath did not. Certainly we cannot fault Plath for the scourges of her mental illness, or the fact that they cost the poet her life. We can only mourn that Plath was not able to give us more, and celebrate that Rich was, and did. I celebrate that Rich stood against the destructive power of female competition, as when she shared the stage of 1974 National Book Award ceremony with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, and accepted the award as sisters-in-arms, on behalf of all women. I venerate Plath’s contribution to literature, and to my own literary becoming. But Rich’s, in so many ways, was simply greater.
In the red wash of your darkroom
from your neighborhood of volcanoes
to the geranium nailed in a can
on the wall of your upstairs hideout
in the rush of breath a window
of revolution allowed you
on this jaundiced stair in this huge lashed eye
footsteps I’m following you with
So many of my footsteps have followed Adrienne Rich: those of a teenager, of a college and graduate student, of a woman writer. Rich’s streets were those that I wandered most devoutly, her streetlamps, her newsprint, her darkroom and geranium the talismans I clutched, her huge lashed eye my headlamp. I dreamed of interviewing her, knowing always that the window of time during which we both claimed crossing on this earth would be narrow, but never got the chance.
But I followed her, I followed her, I still follow her: as not just a reader, but as a novitiate, a revenant, a pilgrim. I did not merely read Adrienne Rich’s poems; I followed her poetic ethos and claimed it as my own. I did not merely encounter Rich’s feminism, or her position as a paragon activist for race and class equality; I followed her imperative for “a society without domination.” I viewed her “exposure of manifestos” and developed my own.
“The rules break like a thermometer,” Rich writes in my next-most-cherished poem of hers, XIII of Twenty-One Love Poems, “we’re out in a country that has no language/no laws”. Perhaps it is best to articulate this way what my years of following Adrienne Rich have yielded: Rich gave me the roadmap to that country with no language, no laws, the country where “whatever we do together is pure invention”. With as much tenacity as grace, Rich obeyed no authority but her own, and in doing so, fashioned an unbridled mode of womanhood for all of us who had previously lacked the manifesto we sought. More than that, the crashing swings Rich took through the stubborn brush of white male domination cleared the way for my generation, her literary granddaughters, to write our own.
I’ve withheld the real lump in my throat of poem XIII, the line revealing that it was both the roadmap, and the territory it charted, which Rich’s poems showed me: “the music on the radio comes clear—/neither Rosenkavalier nor Götterdammerung/ but a woman’s voice singing old songs/ with new words, with a quiet bass, a flute/ plucked and fingered by women outside the law.”
Rest in power, Adrienne-called-Addrienne. If this is how I must look for you, now, so I find you.