As a high school teacher with copious amounts of time on my hand, I availed myself of a surprisingly ample high school library. There, I found the works of Adrienne Rich in an anthology put together by venerable critic Helen Vendler. Before Rich, I never connected to poetry. I read enough of it as an English Major, but I always felt dissuaded by its gnomic code. With the help of Vendler I began to crack the the hieroglyphics of poetry and entered into the brilliant world of Rich’s language. Even before I understood her works, I spoke them out loud, to myself, and I felt a new power in her phrases (“A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.” “Time’s precious chronic invalid.”) like a secret language from some utterly foreign world. To say that I did not understand women at all before reading her poetry would only exaggerate the truth slightly. Her poems about daughter in laws, about divorce, about wives wasting away opened up truths in me I intellectually knew but experientially could not connect with.
Rich, along with other women poets of her time, wrote without precedence, mapping out uncharted terrain of poetry heretofore closed to women. This immense freedom would cripple the best of us, while the lack of a net, and the certainty of censure would prohibit those of the strongest will. Yet, Rich persevered. Even when one her greatest poems, “Snapshots of a Daughter in Law,” written by Rich, “In fragments during children’s naps, brief hours in a library, or at 3AM after rising with a wakeful child,” perhaps her first explicitly feminist poem received largely criticism from the world, she pushed on. In a time when women’s freedom in America remains largely unfettered, though the recent congressional hearings should provide us all with deep concern and a reason for a considerable pause, we can easily forget the pioneers who fought so we might live in comfort.
Yet, for me, on top of her courage, and acute sense of social justice, Rich’s deep sense of humanity, her ability to evoke empathy remains her greatest gift to me. I started my adventure through her poetry with her dense, allusive, intellectually rigorous, scathing, and searing Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, but I gravitated time and time again to the simpler, less dense, more straightforward human interaction of her poem, Mother-In-Law. This poem recounts a lifelong of frustrated conversations between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, the latter a stand in for Rich herself, in which the two try to cross the gap of stereotypes of this tenuous, undefined relationship. Rich, elegantly, glides back and forth in time mapping out the daughter-in-law’s development from a trapped married wife, “envy[ing] the people in a mental hospital for their freedom,” unable to break through the bounds of patriarchal roles, to a widowed lesbian, with an empty home, yet a woman freed from the chains of society, free to reveal herself to her mother-in-law, finally. (One of Rich’s poetic gifts to the world was her uncanny ability to explore feminine relationships previously only described as the butt of jokes or through a collection of misogynistic cliches.)
I cannot fully explain the pull of this poem. Perhaps its Rich’s ability to compact so much unspoken emotion: rage, despair, redemption, missed intimacy, precarious connection into such a beguilingly simple poem. More likely, never before did I feel from art, with such violent immediacy the pains of womanhood, which sounds naive, but for some reason the brute force of the declarations of “I think I’m breaking into two,” or the blunt violence of, “Your son is dead/ ten years/ I am a lesbian/ The children are themselves,” broke down my defenses, my biases. This was the first moment of pure empathy engendered by poetry and from that moment I realized its power.