by Adrienne Rich

Joelle Biele's essay "Reading Backwards: Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich"

Page 1

I'm feeling very honored and challenged to be here, to be here to honor Emily Dickinson, to be here as part of this event as a whole, and I feel very challenged to be in the company of such great women. I'm going to start with a poem of mine in the middle of which Emily Dickinson appears and in the middle of which I address her. It's not entirely of or about her. I had a written a poem back in the sixties, the early sixties, addressed to her, called "I'm in Danger, Sir," a quotation from a letter she had written to Thomas Higginson. He reproves her meters, and she writes to him and says, "You think my gait spasmodic, I am in danger, sir." But I'm not going to offer that poem; I'm going to offer the last poem that I have written for her, and I mean by that the Last. That's what this poem's all about. In between I wrote a long essay about her. When all of her work finally became obtainable in its original versions, I began to study it for the first time as a huge body of work, containing many unexpected and remarkable poems which were nowhere anthologized and which weren't even being talked about. The name of this poem of mine is "The Spirit of Place." I started writing it when, with my woman friend, lover, comrade, I moved into the valley of western Massachusetts where Emily Dickinson was born, and lived all of her life. And I was occasionally asked, half jokingly, if I had moved there to be near Emily, and I acerbicly answered "no." This is "The Spirit of Place," and parts of this poem are addressed to my friend, lover, and comrade, and parts of poem are addressed to Emily Dickinson:

Over the hills in Shutesbury, Leverett
driving with you in spring     road
like a streambed unwinding downhill
fiddlehead ferns uncurling
spring peepers ringing sweet and cold

while we talk yet again
of dark and light, of blackness, whiteness, numbness
rammed through the heart like a stake
trying to pull apart the threads
from the dried blood of the old murderous uncaring

halting on bridges in bloodlight
where the freshets call out freedom
to frog-thrilling swamp, skunk-cabbage
trying to sense the conscience of these hills

knowing how the single-minded, pure
solutions bleached and desiccated
within their perfect flasks

for it was not enough to be New England
as every event since has testified:
New England's a shadow-country, always was

it was not enough to be for abolition
while the spirit of the masters
flickered in the abolitionist's heart

it was not enough to name ourselves anew
while the spirit of the masters
calls the freedwoman to forget the slave

With whom do you believe your lot is cast?
If there's a conscience in these hills
it hurls that question

unquenched, relentless, to our ears
wild and witchlike
ringing every swamp.

The mountain laurel in bloom
constructed like needlework
tiny half-pulled stitches piercing
flushed and stippled petals

here in these woods it grows wild
midsummer moonrise turns it opal
the night breathes with its clusters
protected species

meaning endangered
Here in these hills
this valley     we have felt
a kind of freedom

planting the soil     have known
hours of a calm, intense and mutual solitude
reading and writing
trying to clarify     connect

past and present     near and far
the Alabama quilt
the Botswana basket
history     the dark crumble

of last year's compost
filtering softly through your living hand
but here as well we face
instantaneous violence     ambush     male

dominion on a back road
to escape in a locked car     windows shut
skimming the ditch     your split-second
survival reflex taking on the world

as it is     not as we wish it
as it is     not as we work for it
to be

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