“a long sojourn in a different kind of desert, a sojourn to be shared with others”

by tobybee

In some incredibly sad news, Adrienne Rich died last night. Rich was a poet, an author, an activist, an inspiration. There are so many eulogies flying around the internet at the moment, one of which tells us that:

Poet Adrienne Rich, whose socially conscious verse influenced a generation of feminist, gay rights and anti-war activists, has died. She was 82.

Rich died Tuesday at her Santa Cruz home from complications from rheumatoid arthritis, said her son, Pablo Conrad. She had lived in Santa Cruz since the 1980s.

Through her writing, Rich explored topics such as women’s rights, racism, sexuality, economic justice and love between women.

Rich published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction. She won a National Book Award for her collection of poems “Diving into the Wreck” in 1974. In 2004, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for her collection “The School Among the Ruins.”

She had first gained national prominence with her third poetry collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” in 1963. Citing the title poem, University of Maryland professor Rudd Fleming wrote in The Washington Post that she “proves poetically how hard it is to be a woman – a member of the second sex.”

She and her husband had three sons before she left him in 1970, just as the women’s movement was exploding on the national scene. She used her experiences as a mother to write “Of Woman Born,” her ground-breaking feminist critique of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, published in 1976.

Rich believed that art and politics should not be separate and considered herself a socialist.

“For me, socialism represents moral value – the dignity and human rights of all citizens,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible.”

Rich taught at many colleges and universities, including Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State and Stanford.

Rich won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships and many top literary awards including the Bollingen Prize, Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award.

But when then-President Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997, Rich refused to accept it, citing the administration’s “cynical politics.”

“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” she wrote to the administration. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

In 2003, Rich and other poets refused to attend a White House symposium on poetry to protest to U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Born in Baltimore in 1929, Rich was the elder of two daughters of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother – a mixed heritage that she recalled in her autobiographical poem “Sources.” Her father, a doctor and medical professor at Johns Hopkins University, encouraged her to write poetry at an early age.

Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951 and was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her first book of poetry, “A Change of World.”

In 1953, she married Harvard University economist Alfred Conrad. In 1966, her family moved to New York City when her husband accepted a teaching position at City College. Rich taught remedial English to poor students entering college before teaching writing at Swarthmore College, Columbia University School of the Art and City University of New York.

After she left her husband, he committed suicide later in 1970. She later came out as a lesbian and lived with her partner, writer and editor Michelle Cliff, since 1976.

But, she was of course more than her simple biography, although that is incredible in itself. We’re coming up to pesach now, and so we can return to the words that she spoke in 2004 at a reception for Jewish Voice for Peace:

I’ve been asked to say a few words about the importance of Jewish activism against the Occupation. Whether in the U.S., Israel or elsewhere, I think every shred of it matters. It’s the embodiment of an ethical Judaism, of “that which is hateful to you, do not to others.” It is the rejection of an idolatrous version of Israel and of the soil. It is a recognition that history is not Jewish alone. It is a critical, educative response to what has been claimed as “Israel’s right to exist”–at any cost and on any terms, including a blindered self-destructiveness.

This is how I see opposition to the Occupation in philosophical terms. I have to say that when I read in the Jewish Peace News, or in reports from Bat Shalom, or Gush Shalom or elsewhere, of Israeli activists non-violently protesting the Wall alongside Palestinians, or monitoring checkpoints, of Israeli refuseniks, or, going much further back, of Women in Black standing vigil for years, of American Jews demonstrating against the Occupation in city after city, when I watched the video of the Jewish Voice for Peace’s recent dignified and well-choreographed demonstration at Caterpillar, I feel emotionally strengthened in hope and resolve. I think this kind of activity—demonstrating, publishing a newsletter, writing, speaking, crossing lines to meet and stand with others in resistance—carries its message further out than we can know, including to other Jews who have been looking away or afraid to speak out. At this time, when so much hope seems to have disappeared down a political suckhole in the demonic collusion of our own rightwing government with that of Israel, we need to remember that.

Tomorrow evening, Jews around the world gather to retell and celebrate the Exodus. At some seder tables, undoubtedly, there will be some allusion to the sufferings inflicted on the Palestinian people, in our name. But I don’t think that can suffice. Our hopes and efforts really imply a new Exodus, out from the Occupation mentality, the Mitzrayim, that justifies such cruelty and the doing to others what we ourselves have found so hateful that we have retold its story for thousands of years. I spoke of Jewish activism as –educative– from the Latin to lead out. I see Jewish activism here and in Israel as leading out from the idea of tikkun olam toward a new evolution of Jewish consciousness, not only against the Occupation but in solidarity with all who are trying to liberate themselves. Let’s not deceive ourselves: this is not a simple or straightforward movement. It’s a long sojourn in a different kind of desert, a sojourn to be shared with others, and I believe the people of Jewish Voice for Peace are part of its reality.

We’ll miss your wisdom and your words, Adrienne. May your memory be a blessing.