Reaching Out to Adrienne Rich: An Activist Poet’s Tribute
Dear Rosa Luxemburg,
It has been too long since I wrote you last, and now I am sorry to have to relay the sad news of the death of one of our greatest U.S. poets carrying your torch for freedom and egalitarian democracy. It was in the late 1980s or early 1990s that I began occasionally reaching out to Adrienne in personal correspondence, sending her a few poems that I hoped she might like, asking some questions about poetry and politics, and letting her know about some activist projects that I was involved in. At the time, I was working for Middlesex Interfaith Partners with the Homeless in Central New Jersey, with one of Adrienne’s former poetry students; and was also organizing with a new national student activist group, Student Action Union. Adrienne answered my initial letters with a few kind notes about my poems, and with best wishes on our activist projects.
By then, Rosa, I knew that Adrienne, one of the few U.S. poets to have really played a springboard role in our era’s major progressive movements, was becoming deeply influenced by your writings—by your unwavering commitment to a more just and compassionate political and economic climate, and by your civil-liberties-loving insistence that “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” After the Cold War’s end, with America’s mainstream press and politicians taking the pulse of world history and declaring socialism dead, Adrienne had written that she felt it was a good time to go back and read some of the earlier socialist thinkers, to see how those promising seeds, urging more democratic decision-making from the halls of government to the sweatshop streets, had been betrayed both from within and without.
In one of my early letters to Adrienne, I mentioned that I was a former student and good friend of Stephen Bronner, who had written Socialism Unbound, and edited a terrific English translation of your letters. In her book, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Adrienne wrote: “I would find the words in Rosa Luxemburg….This was powerfully akin to the experience of writing poetry. Politics as an expression of … what’s ‘humanly possible.’ ” Throughout her literary life, Adrienne was always pushing to expand the boundaries of what might be considered humanly possible, knowing as William Blake knew, that what can be imagined can be made real, that more tasty democratic stews could be cooked with the right inventive mix of subjective and communal ingredients. Rosa, the admiration we shared for your democratic-left ideas helped cement a literary friendship for the next two decades, during which Adrienne was consistently generous in answering letters and in donating poems to anthologies and journals I was helping to edit–Changing America: Contemporary U.S. Poems of Protest, published bilingually in France, Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture published online, the “Beat Bush” issue of Long Shot literary magazine. We forwarded emails to each other with petitions to end the wars in Iraq, for civil and human rights, and to end the mutually disastrous Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. And, in recent years, she sent kind personal emails that lifted my spirits during difficult health struggles.
In your tradition, Rosa, Adrienne knew that freedom for all is inextricably linked with freedom for each, that each individual’s thoughts are inevitably shaped in part by wider social winds, that the bicycle ride for free expression and the roaring train motoring to end world-hunger are different vehicles traveling along the same utopian trail, that a healthy society could never come into being through the dictatorial declarations of bureaucrats pretending to be doctors sitting behind sterile desks, that a cutting-edge critique of current events is raised in its intergalactic worth when it is connected to the loftiest of emancipatory dreams. Adrienne called “What if?”: “the first revolutionary question, the question the dying forces don’t know how to ask.” She knew that building a new world from the moldy crust of the old would require fresh ways of putting language together, and she challenged herself to devise new poetic forms and devices with the same boiling urgency that she used to confront the icy status quo. She knew that old myths were in need of both deconstruction and reconstruction, and that “beauty that won’t deny, is itself an eye.” Adrienne found hope in poetry’s gift for breaking stainless-steel silences, and in the breathtaking array of roles that poetry could play in supporting social movements, even as she did not view art as a substitute for making political change. In “Dreamwood,” a poem whose title was meant to help connect the floorboard material world with the transformative power of imagination, she wrote that “poetry isn’t revolution but a way of knowing why it must come.” In memorable poems like “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” and “Twenty-One Love Poems,” she developed multi-verse forms, like a quantum physicist playing around with the ten dimensions of space, capable of converting separated fragments into sustainable communities. And in “Atlas of the Difficult World,” she mapped out our country’s problems of far too much racism, sexism, nationalism, and war; too many apathetic suburbs and foreclosed farms; ecological nightmares threatening our thunderous days; city infrastructures homeless and crumbling, stampeding, unchecked power and powerlessness; too many politicians “trying to revive dead statues to lead us,” too many kids dripping uninsured blood and hope. Addressing these third-rail tribulations, Adrienne insisted: “A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country.”
Rosa, I can’t remember whether, the last time I wrote you, I mentioned my own wrestling these past few years with chronic Lyme disease, which can be far more difficult to diagnose and treat, and far more debilitating, than most people realize if it isn’t caught early because one doesn’t see a tick or bulls-eye rash. As someone who well understood my struggles from her own experiences, Adrienne’s best-wishes emails never failed to deliver coast-to-coast shots of clean energy directly to the spine. I had met Adrienne in person in the 1990s, during several New York-area poetry readings, and she was then walking frailly, with a wooden rheumatoid-arthritis cane. At the time, I couldn’t remember reading about her having had a long-term illness and assumed that RA had struck her in recent years. It was only in late 2011, during our email discussions about the growing and inspiring Occupy Wall Street movement–including its poetry collective with which I was working–that I learned she had been dealing with rheumatoid arthritis ever since her twenties. As someone who, in illness, has found it impossible to keep up with anywhere near my old poetic production, I was astonished to realize that Adrienne’s incredible literary and activist legacy had been accomplished under such trying circumstances. No wonder she could so brilliantly map out the social challenges of our time—she had overcome her own challenges daily for five decades plus!
In a 2007 essay, “Poetry and Commitment,” Adrienne had written: “poetry has the capacity…to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future, a still uncreated site whose moral architecture rests not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom.” We remember writers who have influenced our lives and world-views in different ways. Walt Whitman famously told poets to come that we would be able to find him, simply by looking at the grass under our boot-soles. Allen Ginsberg once told me that, while he was editing a new poem, he would picture friends and influences, living and dead, with their eyes looking over his shoulder, helping him to see first-draft lines in new ways; so that I’ll forever picture Allen as one of those influential sets of editing eyes looking over my shoulder. With Adrienne, I will remember what she wrote about one of her own poetry influences, Muriel Rukeyser— “we reach her by recognizing our need for her, by going to libraries and taking out volume after volume, by going, finally, to the crossroads—of poetry, politics, science, sexuality—and meeting her there, where she waits, reaching for us”—and I will see Adrienne, reaching out, with visionary arms that proved strong enough to overcome autoimmune arthritis for over fifty years, now in death, still with her unique generosity, helping to coax and carry us, from a mixed earthly present filled with too much danger and decay, to a more humane future whose light-gray outlines are only barely visible today.
With love, best wishes, and a promise, Rosa, to try to write next time, without waiting so long, and with better news about the ever-changing shape of our planet,
Eliot Katz is the author of six poetry books, including Unlocking the Exits; and Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull.