for adrienne rich, who died today

I think it’s pretty fair to say that Adrienne Rich is my favorite poet. My copy of The Fact Of A Doorframe is so worn that I have to hold it together with a rubber band, which I think I may have mentioned a time or two. Her poems, which were first introduced to me back when I was a teenager who didn’t understand anything about anything — not really, not yet — became so much to me as I read them over and over again through my early, awkward fumblings with adulthood. And now that I’m older and have done some living and loving and failing and thinking and writing, I go back to that book held together with a rubber band and I read her poems and I think “Oh, I get that now.”

Anyway, this is one I just reread recently; it may be my favorite:

The Burning of Paper Instead of Children

I was in danger of
verbalizing my moral
impulses out of existence.
— Daniel Berrigan,
on trial in Baltimore

1. My neighbor, a scientist and art-collector, telephones me
in a state of violent emotion. He tells me that my son and his, aged
eleven and twelve, have on the last day of school burned a mathe-
matics textbook in the backyard. He has forbidden my son to come
to his house for a week, and has forbidden his own son to leave the
house during that time. “The burning of a book,” he says, “arouses
terrible sensations in me, memories of Hitler; there are few things
that upset me so much as the idea of burning a book.”

Back there: the library, walled
with green Brittanicas
Looking again
in Dürer’s Complete Works
for MELANCOLIA, the baffled woman

the crocodiles in Herodotus
the Book of the Dead
the Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, so blue
I think, It is her color

and they take the book away
because I dream of her too often

love and fear in a house
knowledge of the oppressor
I know it hurts to burn

2. To imagine a time of silence
or few words
a time of chemistry and music

the hollows above your buttocks
traced by my hand
or, hair is like flesh, you said

an age of long silence


from this tongue     this slab of limestone
or reinforced concrete
fanatics and traders
dumped on this coast wildgreen clayred
that breathed once
in signals of smoke
sweep of the wind

knowledge of the oppressor
this is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

3. People suffer highly in poverty and it takes dignity and intelli-
gence to overcome this suffering. Some of the suffering are: a child
did not had dinner last night: a child steal because he did not have
money to buy it: to hear a mother say she do not have money to buy
food for her children and to see a child without cloth it will make
tears in your eyes.

(the fracture of order
the repair of speech
to overcome this suffering)

4. We lie under the sheet
after making love, speaking
of loneliness
relieved in a book
relived in a book
so on that page
the clot and fissure
of it appears
words of a man
in pain
a naked word
entering the clot
a hand grasping
through bars:


What happens between us
has happened for centuries
we know it from literature

still it happens

sexual jealousy
outflung hand
beating bed

dryness of mouth
after panting

there are books that describe all this
and they are useless

You walk into the woods behind a house
there in that country
you find a temple
built eighteen hundred years ago
you enter it without knowing
what it is you enter

so it is with us

no one knows what may happen
though the books tell everything

burn the texts     said Artaud

5. I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of
today. How well we all spoke. A language is a map of our failures.
Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s. People
suffer highly in poverty. There are methods but we do not use them.
Joan, who could not read, spoke some peasant form of French.
Some of the suffering are: it is hard to tell the truth; this is America;
I cannot touch you now. In America we have only the present tense.
I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses
no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of
napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The
typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning, I cannot touch you
and this is the oppressor’s language.

There are about a thousand things I could say about this poem; I’ve said a lot about it at other times in other places, but today I think I’ll leave it alone, with a thank you to Adrienne Rich for writing it, and so many other things that have affected the way I think about and navigate my way through things. Words matter, writing matters, poetry matters. Thank you, thank you, peace to you, goodnight.


3 thoughts on “for adrienne rich, who died today

  1. I just got three of her books in the mail today. She’s my favorite poet, too, and when she died, and I saw that I didn’t have everything, I tried to remedy that in a fell swoop. Well, two swoops.


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