Campus News

Renowned Poet Adrienne Rich Speaks at Bowdoin

Story posted September 30, 2003

Adrienne Rich, one of the nation's most distinguished poets, delivered the College's Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Lecture recently. The lectureship was established by Judge Marie G. Santagata and Judge Frank J. Santagata in memory of their son Kenneth of the class of 1973, and Marie Santagata was present in the audience that nearly filled Pickard Theater.

Even before Professor of English Marilyn Reizbaum took the stage to introduce Rich, the room fell silent in expectation of the revered poet, teacher and activist. In her introduction, Reizbaum outlined Rich's impact on poetry and public thought over the decades:

Adrienne Rich has unquestionably transformed the landscape not only of poetry in last 40 years, but our imagination of it-what poetry can and should do. She wants, as she writes in her 1997 essay, "Poetry and the Public Sphere, "everything possible for poetry," warning us throughout that this is no simple matter. She has enlisted us, variously but always insistently, again, to use her words, " to think and write out of our best consciences, our most open consciousness." This last exhortation appears at the conclusion of "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," one of a flood of titles that signal to us the enormous scope of her achievement and impact. When we think of "When We Dead Awaken," "Of Woman Born," "Blood, Bread and Poetry: the Location of the Poet" "Split at the Root," "Snapshots of a Daughter- in-law," "Dream of a Common Language," "Diving into the Wreck," we can chart not only the arc of Adrienne Rich's career, but a certain sea change in our thinking about the politics of sexuality, power and language.

Rich walked on stage aided by a cane and Reizbaum. But the small woman, dressed in black with a pixie haircut, emanated a powerful grace when she took her place behind the podium.

"It's wonderful to be here," she said, "and I thank the Santagata's for this occasion in my life."

The evening began with a somber tone as Rich noted the death of scholar Edward Said, which had been made public only a few hours before.

"For many years, Edward Said was a lone voice in America on, quote, the question of Palestine and the effects of Zionism," she said. "His loss will be dearly mourned by seekers of peace and justice everywhere...and I felt the need to honor him tonight.

"I also want to honor the season of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of reflection and examination," Rich said. Then she read an excerpt from her poem, "Eastern War Time," which, she said, "is about memory and how we use memory."

Excerpt from Eastern War Time

"Memory says: What to do right? Don't count on me.
I'm a canal in Europe where bodies are floating
I'm a mass grave I'm the life that returns
I'm a table set with room for the Stranger
I'm a field with corners left for the landless
I'm accused of child-death of drinking blood
I'm a man-child praising God he's a man
I'm a woman bargaining for a chicken
I'm a woman who sells for a boat ticket
I'm an immigrant tailor who says A coat
is not a piece of cloth only

I sway in the learnings of the master mystics
I have dreamed of Zion I've dreamed of world revolution
I have dreamed that my children could live at last like others
I have walked the children of others through ranks of hatred
I'm a corpse dredged from a canal in Berlin
A river in Mississippi
I'm a woman standing with other women dressed in black
on the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem
There is spit on my sleeve there are phone calls in the night
I stand on a road in Ramallah with naked face listening
I am standing here in your poem unsatisfied
lifting my smoky mirror

--from Atlas of a Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991

With that Rich launched into an evening of poetry readings interspersed with insight into what inspired her to write particular poems.

The title of her poem, "What Kind of Times are These?" Was drawn from a Berthold Brecht poem, "To posterity," in which he wrote:

"Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!"

What Kind of Times Are These

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light -
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

--from Dark Fields of the Republic

Rich said that she lives on a street near an elementary school, and that the ice cream truck that travels up and down her street playing it's music has "Miracle Ice Cream" painted on the side.

Miracle Ice Cream

Miracle's truck comes down the little avenue,
Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls,
and, yes, you can feel happy
with one piece of your heart.

Take what's still given: in a room's rich shadow
a woman's breasts swinging lightly as she bends.
Early now the pearl of dusk dissolves.
Late, you sit weighing the evening news,
fast-food miracles, ghostly revolutions,
the rest of year heart.

--from Dark Fields of the Republic

Rich also read "In Those Years," "This Evening Let's," "For," "For Them," and "A Long Conversation," about which she said, "The poem concerns the centuries-long conversation about human freedom and justice and power and the forces that try to silence it."

In addition, Rich read poems from a book in progress that she said she intends to call The School Among the Ruins.

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