Adrienne Rich, suffering from an excruciatingly painful and disabling disease, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, observed in her brief, haunting essay, “Voices from the air,” describing poetry’s peculiar relationship to suffering, “one property of poetic language [is] to engage with states that themselves would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers.” My opening sentence hesitates, interrupts itself, revises what I’ve just stated (or comments upon it), because I have previously had occasions to muse on poetry and suffering. Not long ago, an anthology entitled Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability included a brief essay about my revised relationship to Rich’s poetry upon contracting the disease from which she had suffered since childhood. I quoted her poetry and referred to poems and the essay I love, “Voices in the air,” which became, during my own most physically painful years, words that guided me away from a passivist, physical suffering that had silenced me and back to poetic language. I guess a simpler way of putting it would be to say that she has inspired me—that she was a life saver (in the sense of the life of the mind)—for most of my adult life!
If one wrote much on Rich when she was alive, one came to realize that she read and personally gave (or denied) permission to quote. To my relief, I was always granted permission, and it was clear that she remembered accounts of my own illness when we met a decade ago. I recall her smile as she came into the lobby, moving slowly, but holding herself with the dignified posture of pain. We sat next to each other by a fountain in the luxurious Scottsdale resort hotel where she was a featured reader and I was, of all accidents, her host at a local conference. We did not need many words to reflect awareness of the cognitive dissonance of the fancy resort. Rather worse for wear, our bodies not bathing-suit worthy, we shared the experience of remembering our bodies every single minute of our lives because of pain. We spoke of other things. I’m grateful for those moments of fellowship with this great poet and feminist activist. But it lulled me.
My last exchange with Rich was a fitting reminder of her exacting, poetic and ethical standards. The brief essay I wrote for Beauty Is a Verb profoundly irritated her. Although she gave her permission for me to quote her, she wrote the Permissions Editor at Norton (not me) that she wished “Ms. Hogue could find a less reductive way of articulating my poetry’s importance to her” than claiming the following:
I have been moved by poetry that conveys the essential. I live with, contemplate Adrienne Rich’s poems and essays about having rheumatoid arthritis (as it happens, the very disease I have). I never took in the details until I was myself living them. Rich reported news I had no way to understand, because it was about a body’s experience I did not share, and described the indescribable (pain). (BIAV 307)
“To my knowledge,” Rich wrote the Permissions Editor, “I have never written ‘about’ having RA.” I had been happy with this little essay until I received Rich’s cautionary email warning me that my expression was reducing her poetry to her illness. When I went back to the essay, to my horror, all the “abouts” leapt out at me like so many pointing fingers! Thus were Rich’s final words directed to me, some months before she died of the complications of RA. After the ashamed shock receded, I acknowledged her great-hearted, hard-won, and rigorous empathy. To honor her, I must re-vision (in Rich’s well-known definition: to see with new eyes) my own engagement not only with her language, but also with my own.
And I wanted to share my musings on this experience, because it is in the spirit of poetry’s verbal precision and conscious attentiveness that we all may participate more care-fully in helping to carry on her legacy, to convey some part of the Rich heritage of all she gave us.