Two women writers that I’ve only recently discovered and cannot believe I came to so late in the game: the poet, Adrienne Rich, and the essayist, Rebecca Solnit. Both feminists and activists and writing with the conviction of being both participant and observer to the plight of women in a male-dominant society. I know, I know . . . you think you’ve heard or read it all before, but I assure you the writing surprises in many ways. Rich with her illuminated verse and Solnit with her easy-to-read intellect working on every page.
I’ve read every poem in The Dream of a Common Language twice and find something new each time. Some lines from favorites:
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives.
The woman who sits watching, listening,
eyes moving in the darkness
is rehearsing in her body, hearing-out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words, a few chords, from the stage:
a tale only she can tell.
But there come times—perhaps this is one of them—
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
From the poem, Transcendental Etude
The Great Nebula? I had to look it up. Orion Nebula or Great Nebula “is the place where new stars are born.” Don’t you love knowing that stars are born. . .for real? And how fantastic is the word, disenthrall? Don’t be surprised to hear me throw that into a conversation!
And from the poem, Origins and History of Consciousness:
Night-life. Letters, journals, bourbon
sloshed in the glass. Poems crucified on the wall,
dissected, their bird-wings severed
like trophies. No one lives in this room
without living through some kind of crisis.
No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.
The lament of every writer—for all that came before—and the legions that will come after—working out the inner dark and light of the mind and making it clear on the page.
In her poem, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, from a 1963 collection, Rich writes with razor like candor:
You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
Still have your dresses copied from that time . . .
your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.
Egads, what a zinger. It’s said Rich wrote this about her mother-in-law. Reminds me of a character(s) in The Help. I wonder if Rich ever saw the movie before she died in 2012 at the age of 82? I can’t wait to delve into her other books of poetry.
I discovered the writer, Rebecca Solnit, from reading another writer’s literary blog. She extolled the talents of the memoirist and essayist as one of the most important writers working today. Even with the little that I’ve read (only two of her thirteen books, A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Wanderlust: A History of Walking), Solnit tackles a topic and makes it shimmer with understanding. Think the smartest person you know fused with the unpretentiousness and child-like wonder of Mr. Rogers.
Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. . .This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train.
And . . .
Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.
Then there is this one that seems to punctuate every night I lie awake in bed unable to sleep . . .
When someone doesn’t show up, the people who wait sometimes tell stories about what might have happened and come to half believe the desertion, the abduction, the accident. Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t—and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.
Above quotes from A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Solnit was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for River of Shadows—“her book on the history of photography, the dawn of the cinematic West, and more or less the annihilation of space and time”—yes, I know, what? But trust me, her writing does not read like boring footnotes in an academic journal. Just the opposite. In Wanderlust Solnit writes about walking. Dull? Hardly.
Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.
And this . . .
Language is like a road, it cannot be perceived all at once because it unfolds in time, whether heard or read. This narrative or temporal element has made writing and walking resemble each other.
Or this gem . . .
Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.
And we wonder why our cold-weather depressions peak in February. Shut up in our homes against the brutal winter seems to challenge our sense of hope.
But only three weeks until the calendar tells us it’s spring, and our walking, wandering, getting lost days are before us. Hallelujah!