While putting linen into a hat box and then putting the hat box into a cardboard box, because I’m moving from the mountain to the city, I get a call about Adrienne Rich’s death.

– Really?[1]
– Yeah, I just heard about it.

There’s a brief pause. Probably, we’re both quieted because we have nothing real[2] to say.

When we start to talk again, we aren’t talking about Rich, but about a photography exhibit we both saw where light coming in from a specific window was examined at different times, different seasons, for a period of four years.

– It’s like watching someone admit she can’t grab the sun.

The work we’re talking about is slow. The work never shook off its process or how deeply the artist wanted, looked, and sat with sunlight; a slowness and weight gathers in the photographs. The visible process was laborious, was like waiting or living like a still life: lying on the floor in the exact position and placement each morning and each afternoon; taking the photos carefully so that variables of camera placement, body positioning, and shade were reduced; transferring the photos from film to film paper and then transferring it to cloth canvas. The result exaggerated the heaviness of light so shadows acted like a relief, acted to make sense of light.[3]

We hang up and, outside, the weather is mist. Not quite a full rain, but an air that’s wet and barely moving. My own mental movement slows; I don’t know where I’ve packed any of my books and my natural inclination is to read Rich’s work. For language or relief, I open the computer:

Adrienne Rich died and her collected quotations, links to her work, and thoughts about her work are tweeted. Her name is hash tagged.[4] Her poems are re-blogged, and she seems more alive and seductive in the frenzy. The desire to read her work—to find that language or relief—is enunciated and we engage through her words, through remembering reading and re-reading our own readings. Click. Click. Tweet. Retweet. And we’re reconnected to Adrienne Rich, to each other.

Is this contemporary mourning?

I search #AdrienneRich and read the collections, the wave of consciousness trying to articulate loss. We are holding onto the shape of Rich’s work and it’s intimate, it’s extremely present, and my sense of loss expands to an awareness of how much community and collectivity occurs through writing.

As the twitter feed is happening, there’s a shifting: the poems and lines start reading differently in the lens of death. It’s almost thrilling, almost like reading Rich’s body of work in quick and hungry successions. She is endlessly present and shimmering, her work is alive in a new and unimaginable way. Her work starts to intertwine with her life, her death, and her readers.

I hadn’t known, hadn’t thought, of mourning as part of our shareable culture, but here I was retweeting a favorite line, “A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them[5].

Admittedly, I feel uncomfortable. There’s happeningness and helplessness, there’s a vulnerability in going through the process of being in the moment of sharing a mourning, but there’s an underbelly feeling. Even with the excitement, there’s a perspective I can’t let go of, a perspective that thinks this is happening strangely. Somehow, this is strange.

We are working out our grief, becoming part of the present tense world where Adrienne Rich isn’t alive anymore, but does this let us have a tender moment with her words? Is there, in this, tenderness[6]?

In the strange, digital grieving, Rich’s death seems, somehow, faster. Too fast?

Quickly, people start wondering about about unpublished works and discuss posthumous writing on the very day of her death. In my bones, the up to the minute news moves past a shared pining, reaches past—even—the moment of loss and pushes the death into something else: post death?

It becomes less like public mourning and more like public (and hurried) burial. Getting personal: In grad school, my mentor sidelong looked at my work and commented that it felt “too old” and “takes itself too seriously;” I remember she said, “I think Adrienne Rich is great, but not everyone should write like that.” I hadn’t read Rich’s work yet[7], but took that comment as a chance to build a relationship, a mentorship even, with Rich [8].

Predictably and thankfully, I started with “Diving Into the Wreck,” started with a connection to the sentiment “I came to explore the wreck.” It made sense. It resonated to think that messiness is part of thinking, and to sense that the mess could hold a new idea to be thought. This was the mentorship I was looking for—a relationship with Rich’s work reminded me that I was writing for direct experience, was looking for a way to articulate thoughts that resisted language, and was taking a risk by pushing language and asking it to do more. I read Rich and kept writing into what felt tangled.

For me, Rich’s work was like Browning’s “Andrea Del Sarto”:

That arm is wrongly put—and there again—
A fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,

The soul of Rich’s work is a generous space for living and thinking. It isn’t always perfect and, for that, it is always perfect.

As a student of poetry, Rich’s work reminded me that vagueness is often eloquent, that difficulty coupled with a persistence to work into difficulty should be taken seriously. Rich’s poetics looked to liberate meaning, to push past containers and see room for possibility. For me, Adrienne Rich made me accountable as a writer, asked me not to contract, but to insist that being a bit difficult and messy is precisely how to open a space for conscious thinking.

I never met Rich, but felt her mentorship. David Trinidad, a poet I was lucky to meet, articulated what I valued about Rich. On the editorial board of Columbia Poetry Review, my co-editors and I read a weak submission, Trinidad interrupted, “This is what happens when poets forget to live and feel first.” Click. Trinidad said what Rich had been saying: practice being direct and present. He didn’t know, but he pulled me deeper into Rich and deeper into a poetics that kept (urgently) searching. When I hear about Rich’s death, I wonder if Trinidad knows[9]

This is how the mind works: the exhibit about light is based on restrictions (body position, camera location, and the same window for a set amount of time), but the light permits dynamic change in tone and you can feel the artist opening up to warming and real light.

This is also how the mind works: Adrienne Rich dies and I wonder if David Trinidad knows how much he helped me understand her work, understand that writing into and toward an idea is valuable.

I can’t tweet the series of connections I encounter when I hear Rich is dead. And I can’t tweet my surprise about how quickly articles are posted about her death.[10] I do value the effort to share genuine, fragmented feelings about loss. I do value the way we look at the moment head on and overlap together in a chorus of Rich’s words.

It happens fast and it happens collectively, Adrienne Rich dies and we all clamor to specify our loss. We all take a lesson from her mentorship when we assume the difficult position of using our language to fill the empty space. Our haphazard tweets show—though strange and messy—a desire to take her death seriously, to keep taking everything seriously enough to acknowledge mystery, beauty and difficulty.

[1] I never know what to say to this kind of news and I’m disappointed that disbelief is my only authentic reaction.

[2] At least, nothing that’s more real that Adrienne Rich dying.

[3] Always that reminder of how shadow makes sense of light, death makes sense of life. Probably, we are talking about Rich. At least, we are thinking about what it means to be alive.

[4] The hashtags, surprisingly, resemble bruises and make the whole spectacle not unlike keening.

[5] This feels like a closure thing. This feels like letting myself document the impression of loss, the first impulse of loss before the reflection and the writing into loss.

[6] The value of being able to generate a personal elegy, of being able to narrate the real value of Rich’s work, does seem tender. But it’s kind of like going to an orgy where, it’s possible, some people are really connecting but it’s also possible that some people are just fooling around.

[7] I didn’t admit that I hadn’t read the work and, probably, it was because I took myself too seriously.

[8] This was exactly what I wanted: someone who took their work seriously and wasn’t afraid of the willingness to not be light and fluffy.

[9] Of course, I know he knows. It’s one of the great and countless small things Trinidad does as a teacher: he knows before you know.

[10] How was there time to reflect? How was there time to grab thoughts and put them to words?

Kristen Orser works in text and image and is the author of the chapbooks E AT I (Wyrd Tree Press), SQUINT (Dancing Girl Press), Folded into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm (Greying Ghost Press), Winter, Another Wall (blossombones), and Wilted Things (Scantily Clad Press). She often writes about food, drinks, and art for places like Poor Taste Magazine and Parlour Room Projects. Her work is often in pieces on the hardwoods and always in process. More from this author →