Sundress Roundtable: Reading and Writing from Adrienne Rich, Part 1

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Sundress Publications is glad to give space to the writing community at large for broader discussions on important topics. Recently, we have hosted discussions on accountability in publishing, plagiarism, and starting small presses. Now, we are sharing an AWP panel which was sadly cancelled this year due to the coronavirus on reading and writing in response to Adrienne Rich.

The Cherrywood Poetry Workshop in Austin, TX, following a format learned in Hoa Nguyen’s private studio, read and wrote in response to all 1216 pages of Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems 1950-2012 (Norton, 2016). Surmising that having read every published Rich poem in community might be a unique accomplishment, Cindy Huyser, Lisa L. Moore, Desiree Morales, and Robert Stanton report on how deeply prescient Rich is about the ruptures in contemporary American life and share some of the work developed in response. 

This is the first part of the two-part roundtable. Part two can be found here!


Participants: 

  • Cindy Huyser (CH): (coordinator) (she/her)
  • Lisa L. Moore (LLM): (she/her)
  • Desiree Morales (DM): (she/her)
  • Rob Stanton (RS): (he/him)

Please introduce yourself and give a brief overview of your experience with encountering the collected works of Adrienne Rich.

Cindy Huyser (CH): My first encounter with Adrienne Rich’s work was as an undergraduate, when I read Diving Into the Wreck. That someone of my mother’s generation could write poems so clearly critical of patriarchal power structures, and ones that reflected the identity I had begun to claim (”I am the androgyne,” Rich writes in “The Stranger”), was both revelation and relief. So it was a special pleasure to read and write to her Collected Poems with the Cherrywood workshop.

Rich’s poem “The Eye” takes place within an apartment in a city into which war is thrusting, close enough to coat trees and books with ash. The week we read this poem, NASA announced that 2018 had been the 4th hottest year on record, and the poem’s hurricane metaphor prompted me to think about weather extremes as a form of imminent conflict. The speaker of the poem imagines a response that might have come too late in any case, and as someone recently widowed I could certainly relate.

My poem, “Dear Storm” responds to Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Eye”.

The Eye

A balcony, violet shade on stucco    fruit in a plastic bowl on the iron
    raggedy legged table, grapes and sliced melon, saucers, a knife, wine
in a couple of thick short tumblers cream cheese once came in: our snack
    in the eye of the war      There are places where fruit is implausible, even
rest is implausible, places where wine if any should be poured into wounds
    but we’re not yet there or it’s not here yet      it’s the war
not us, that moves, pauses and hurtles forward into the neck
    and groin of the city, the soft indefensible places but not here yet

Behind the balcony an apartment, papers, pillows, green vines still watered
    there are waterless places but not here yet, there’s a bureau topped with
marble
and combs and brushes on it, little tubes for lips and eyebrows, a dish of
coins and keys
    there’s a bed a desk a stove a cane rocker a bookcase civilization
cage with a skitter bird, there are birdless places but not
    here yet, this bird must creak and flutter in the name of all
uprooted orchards, limbless groves
    this bird standing for wings and song that here can’t fly

Our bed quilted      wine poured      future uncertain      you’d think
    people like us would have it scanned and planned      tickets to somewhere
would be in the drawer     with all our education you’d think we’d have
taken measures
    soon as ash started turning up on the edges of everything ash
in the leaves of books ash on the leaves of trees and in the veins of the
passive

    innocent life we were leading calling it hope
you’d think that and we thought this     it’s the war not us that’s moving
    like shade on a balcony
from The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000 – 2004

Dear Storm 

The years flow in only one
direction, no eye
but a gaze to the past
and some blurred trajectory.

Regard the remnant energy
posted a year ago: bodies
shot through with seconds’ invisible
riddling, the hours of the living
a colander of stars.

Outside, a dizzying drench—
alleyway and intersection drowned,
the rain barrel’s reminder
of fullness, overflow, drought.

Desiree Morales (DM): We began reading Rich soon after the 2016 election, at the same time that I began taking curanderismo classes from a local elder. I experienced my deepest despair just as I began to approach these cultural technologies that had been left for me, right when I needed them. In curandera school we learned that we’re never alone and can always call on our ancestors, saints, and guides to join us, not just in ceremony. It was immediately clear that Adrienne Rich is one of my ancestor/saint/guides, and her uncanny ability to talk to me across time through her poetry is a salve that guides how I approach this tumultuous American moment.

The day after I stood next to students during the March for Our Lives, I read a line from Rich that I remember as: “We have lived with violence for seven years/ It was not worth one single life.” The Rich poem I included, “Nightbreak,” appeared the week I listened to the Kavanaugh hearings on NPR with my fists clenched around the steering wheel. Week after week, Rich articulated my despair, pain, anger, fear and resolve in a way that was both prescient and reflective because it was rooted in her clarity around her present moment.

Interspersed within the same book, there are poems of joy, love, sex, and hope. Those poems are like a promise–if she feels dark on one page and light on the next, then I shouldn’t worry I will never have light again, no matter how much it feels that way. I was twelve years old when she wrote her last poems. It has been a comfort to remind myself that my whole adult life, almost every moment of optimism, my sense of security, my faith in whatever holds our lives together came after all of this work.

I wrote my poem, “Dream Girl” in response to Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Nightbreak.”

Nightbreak

Something broken     Something
I need     By someone
I love     Next year
will I remember what
This anger     unreal
yet
has to be gone through
The sun to set
on this anger
I go on
head down     into it
The mountain pulsing
Into the oildrum     drops
the ball of fire.

Time is quiet     doesn’t break things
or even wound     Things are in danger
from people     The frail clay lamps
of Mesopotamia
row on row under glass
in the ethnological section
little hollows for dried-
up oil     The refugees
with their identical
tales of escape     I don’t
collect what I can’t use     I need
what can be broken.

In the bed the pieces fly together
and the rifts fill     or else
my body is a list     of wounds
symmetrically placed
a village

blown open     by planes
that did not     finish the job

The enemy has     withdrawn
between raids     become invisible
there are
no agencies
of relief
the darkness becomes utter
Sleep     cracked and flaking
Sifts over the shaken    target.

What breaks     is night
not day     The white
scar     splitting
over the east
The crack weeping
Time for the pieces
to move
dumbly back
toward each other.

from Leaflets: Poems 1965 – 1968

Dream Girl

I am driving the old blue
truck made of birds
through the forest

I am walking through
the neighborhood where my
ancestor’s tears are honeybees

Ask why enough
and the answer to anything
becomes beautiful

The female word for warrior means
an intractable light
I am making my body into
an instrument of light

The female word for weapon means
that which commands without violence

I no longer recognize the passive voice

I am making a weapon of my body

with my ancestor technology
with my inside out snake technology
with these instrument flight hands
I put words in my own mouth
and carry the story awhile

Lisa L. Moore (LLM): I grew up in Canada, and my English literature degree was canonical and traditional. The only class I took on living writers was on Canadian literature. So I did not encounter Adrienne Rich until I started graduate school at Cornell in 1986. I knew she was a poet, but I first read her as the author of iconic essays of feminist theory like “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and her co-authored piece “An Interview with Audre Lorde.”

I remember another lesbian in the entering class, a very sophisticated Bryn Mawr graduate, saying on the first day of our Poetry and Poetics class that she was interested in Rich’s poem “North American Time.” I read “North American Time” and found it completely incomprehensible. I just didn’t have the tools to read it at the time. But eventually I heard about 21 Love Poems, at that time among the few published works about contemporary lesbian erotic relationships.

Those were the poems that I transcribed into valentines and read to new lovers. Even though it was cool for my friends and I to make a little affectionate fun of the romantic language of the poems (“your lovemaking, like the half-cured frond/ of the fiddlehead fern in forests”), I know I at least felt deeply understood, felt, seen, by the directness of lines like “the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth.” I taught those poems and others like Diving Into the Wreck and eventually, even “North American Time” in literature survey courses at UT for a long time before I had this exquisite opportunity to read all of Rich with Cherrywood Workshop. It was deep.

Adrienne Rich’s triptych of poems about her frustrated female relatives really opened up for me one of my own origin stories, about which I’m always trying to write and always failing. When I was a baby, my parents left me with my grandparents for the weekend. My grandparents lived on a farm in rural Alberta, so I was incorporated into the daily routine of winter chores. In a terrible accident that shaped my childhood and my family, the car got stuck in the fields where we were out checking that the cattle had enough hay for the night. My grandparents got out but left me in the car where it was warmer. My grandfather jacked up the car and slid underneath it to clean out the snow that had accumulated, choking the engine. The car fell on him, crushing him, and he died. My grandmother left me in the car to get help. At least that’s what we think happened. It was one of the many traumas of my childhood that were never talked about.

Rich’s poem opened up for me the possibility of understanding this as a story not about me being left behind but my grandmother walking away. That led me to imagine whether this event I have usually thought of as an abandonment might have also been the template for my own walking away from some of the constraints of my upbringing. It’s also a poem about winter. My poem “Eileen May White Moore” responds to Rich’s poem “Mary Gravely Jones.”

Mary Gravely Jones

We had no petnames, no diminutives for you,
always the formal guest under my father’s roof:
you were “Grandmother Jones” and you visited rarely.
I see you walking up and down the garden,
restless, southern-accented, reserved, you did not seem
my mother’s mother or anyone’s grandmother.
You were Mary, widow of William and no matriarch,
yet smoldering to the end with frustrate life,
ideas nobody listened to, least of all my father.
One summer night you sat with my sister and me
in the wooden glider long after twilight
holding us there with streams of pent-up words.
You could quote every poet I had ever heard of,
had read The Opium Eater, Amiel and Bernard Shaw,
your green eyes looked clenched against opposition.
You married straight out of the convent school,
your background was country, you left an outperformed
typescript of a play about Burr and Hamilton,
you were impotent and brilliant, no one cared
about your mind, you might have ended
elsewhere than in that glider
reciting your unwritten novels to the children.

from “Grandmothers,” in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far

Eileen May White Moore

The name we called you, “Gramma Moore,”
flattened out consonants and contracted syllables
but was oddly formal. In your small stucco house
by the highway, you raised four children in two bedrooms
and a lean-to tacked on to the back. How crowded
that must have been. But I remember you
alone there and lonely, the worry over finding you
a hired boy to live-in, my father and uncles
gathering on the weekends to help with the farm,
work you could not do alone after Grampa died.
I was with you that day, fifteen months old
in the deep Alberta winter, well-wrapped in the back seat
of a car that stopped in the snowy field where you
and Grampa had driven to check the cattle. Something
happened, no one knows what but you, the car stalled,
Grandpa jacked it up, dug underneath and the car slipped,
crushing him. The nearest help was a mile across the fields,
so in your housedress and galoshes, you walked away.

Robert Stanton (RS): Before this in-depth engagement, my experience of Rich’s work was piecemeal–powerful individual poems and sequences read in anthologies, revelatory essays discussed mainly in academic contexts. When I first joined, I was excited the Cherryword group had already embarked on reading through the Collected Poems: I got to know and love the people as I got to know and love the poetry.

“From Strata” is one of the “Later Poems” included at the very end of Rich’s Collected. Its central metaphor of archeological excavation is in some ways so obvious but also so clear, so strong and so flexible: the author identifies, tellingly, less with the static artifacts to be uncovered and more with the active efforts and theories of the diggers, ceaselessly searching for and finding new meaning. So many “layers” of her ongoing commitment– the political, the personal, the poetic, the erotic–are returned to here, for the last time, knowingly.

“Career” is a verse journal [I] began November 17, 2016, each daily nine-line chunk hovering somewhere between a separate poem and another stanza added to an ongoing account. The sections [here] were all begun at group meetings–sessions that have been a necessary coping mechanism in dark times. My responses to hearing and reading Rich’s perennially timely and incisive work alongside the other group members are now permanently woven into this ongoing project in ways that are sustaining, at least to me.

From Strata

1

Under this blue
immune unfissured autumn
urbs et orbis      pivot and axis      thrashing

upthrust from strata
deep under : silences
pressed each against

another : sharpened flints
pulverized coral      stoneware crumbling
rusted musket muzzles

chips of China-trade
porcelain     shackled bone
no death unchained

Here at eye-level the new
news new season new
moment’s momentary flare :

floodlit abstractions
root-riven      scrambling
for adulation

Yes, we lived here long and hard
on surfaces stunned by the wrecking ball
where time’s thought’s creature only

and when all’s fallen      even
our remnant renegade selves
—let this too sleep in strata :

the nerve-ends of my footsole
still crave your touch as when
my earlobes glowed between

your quiet teeth

2

Say a pen must write underground      underwater      so be it

The students gather at the site :
Come over here and look at this
  Looks like writing      yes      that’s how they did it      thought it
     
into marks they thought
      would outlast them
     
it would take patience to do that      Anyone
                                                                                  recognize the script?
     
Could it be music?      a manifesto?

3

Rescuers back off      hands lifted open as in guilt
for the ancestors no one is rescued from :

curated galleried faces starting
off      from behind long-stiffened bandages

but who would meet those lookaway eyes
maybe they’re metal      blind reflectors

maybe only who choose to look can see :
thought finding itself in act

violet olive brush strokes speaking of flesh
leaps diagonals pauses : a long conversation

with others living and dead
palpable and strange

4

Viscous stealth, brutal calm : subterfugal, churning
encrypted in tar      sending expendable

bodies to underworlds unseen      until
catastrophe blows apart

the premises      a spectacle hits
the TV channels      then in a blink

a dense cloth wipes history clean :

but never in beds never to warm again
with the pulsing of arrival      shudder of wordless welcome

the body heat of breadwinners and lovers

5

My hands under your buttocks      your fingers numbering my ribs
how a bow scrapes, a string holds the after-pluck

astonishing variations      hours, bodies without boundaries

Back into that erotic autumn I search my way defiant

through passages of long neglect

6

Throw the handwritten scraps of paper
into the toilet bowl

to work their way spiraling down
the open gullet of advanced barbarism

So : if you thought no good came from any of this
not the resistance nor its penalties

not our younger moments nor the continuing on
then, I say, trash the evidence

So : a scrap of paper      a loved bitter scrawl
swirls under into the confluence

of bodily waste and wasted bodies :
—a shred      absorbed, belonging

7

Weathers drag down and claw up the will :
yellowdust wind      asphalt fog      a green slash
of aurora borealis      or :

a surveillance helicopter’s high-intensity beam
impaling solitudes      ransacking solidarities

In the end no pleas no bargains :

It’s your own humanity you’ll have to drag
over and over, piece by piece
page after page
out of the dark

from Later Poems: Selected and New 1971 – 2012

from “Career”
making out
in-
escapable tweets
bird language
everyone assigned
their own
negligible portion
of the dark
forest

what it would mean not
to have to
defend
to push
back
from the margin
to feel (anew each day
a new reason every day)
mortified

imagine a
Cassandra
surviving to
live
her vision (a
joke
right?) – rage
that must be dealt with in
this life / this world / this body

kindness as
wanted ghost
mineral
deposits
(why do
men
do it
I had thought them happy
dead wrong)

a ‘scary
time
for young men’
indeed
all those hormones
needing bonding
all that time that sound
echoing from the future
breaking glass

get used to
begging
for medication
get used to
not
tasting water
get used to
getting used to our
ancient future

ends of the earth
returned from –
mentor
needing guidance
navigates
via key-
board &
finger-
tip

from the porous
eye
out
– influx
(unpredictable)
of guilt
– ash
is what is
always coming next

power to choose
no power –
‘victims’
to ascend to
check out
the current
paperwork the preferred
smorgasbord the
rigorous perimeter

to labour to
be simple to
ask the one
question to assert
(with zero violence)
its importance
to allow love its
pitiless victory
is not easy

think of the earth
minus ego
plus exultation
the un-
seen vast leverage required
to
maneuver epiphany
to
everyday daylight

dreams even
nightmares a
luxury a
privilege old &
on fire
your stand-in
cartoon bird
whistles awkwardly of ‘what
is past, or passing, or to come’

work you are not
expected to complete but
from which you are not
permitted to refrain
its buffeting
choral affect
sounding
each of us
trusty responsive instruments in turn

where to next
laws & lords repealed
quit
while you’re ahead
richer than ever
nah move seamlessly between
solitude
&
solidarities

You can find part two, here. And thanks to the roundtable participants!


CindyHuyserPortrait_color

Cindy Huyser’s poems appear in many journals and anthologies, and in a chapbook, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems (Blue Horse Press, 2014). She co-edited Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems (Dos Gatos Press, 2016) and several editions of the Texas Poetry Calendar.

Poet Lisa Moore in her backyard in Austin, Texas

Lisa L. Moore is the author of the chapbook 24 Hours of Men (Dancing Girl, 2018) and a winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation Book Award. The author or editor of five scholarly books, she is Director of the LGBTQ Studies Program at The University of Texas at Austin.

Desiree Morales photo

Desiree Morales is a poet and educator in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in What Rough Beast, Conflict of Interest, and Truck: I35 Corridor. She grew up in Southern California and plans to never stop talking about it.

RobStanton

Rob Stanton lives and teaches in Austin, TX. He is the author of The Method, Trip- and Takes, Cuts, the latter in collaboration with Colin Winborn.


A 501(c)(3) non-profit literary press collective founded in 2000, Sundress Publications is an entirely volunteer-run press that publishes chapbooks and full-length collections in both print and digital formats, and hosts numerous literary journals, an online reading series, and the Best of the Net Anthology.

Website: www.sundresspublications.com  Facebook: sundresspublications

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