During the winter of 1999 I was living in Eugene, Oregon with my twin brother Michael Dickman and the poets Carl Adamshick and Michael McGriff. At the time, Portland was still enjoying (the now sadly absent) Poetry Downtown Series. The series brought in dynamic poets from all over the country and on one cold and rainy night Adrienne Rich was to read. My brother, Carl, Michael, and I borrowed a friend’s car and drove up to Portland for the event which was taking place in an old church along Portland’s South West Park Blocks; a beautiful church with simple architecture and stained glass windows.
When we arrived it felt like Easter Sunday. The church was packed with the Congregation of Poetry. There was a long introduction enumerating all of Rich’s many books, awards, and honors. Then Adrienne Rich approached the pulpit. She walked slow and with the help of a cane. She seemed, from my pew, weak, unsteady. But when she opened her pages and began to read her first poem there was a strength that seemed to descend around her like…well…like a holy spirit.
Perhaps what happened on that stage, poem after poem, her energy rising with each stanza, was like a Holy Spirit or something like Lorca’s Duende. We, the faithful, were witnessing something ecstatic, something special and we could feel it in our bones. After the reading Rich sat patiently and signed over 200 books and broadsides, though I can’t imagine how tired she must have been. When I stepped in front of her, nervous, a copy of Midnight Salvage in my hands, I said “Ms. Rich, thank you so much for everything” and she looked up at me and said “Thank you, thank you for being here”. I know how that must sound. It must sound plain to you, a remark a famous writer says over and over in infinitum. But the way she said it, the warmth, the caring in her voice, it was true. And it was true for everyone she met that night. Thank you for being here. Thank you for surviving this world with me.
Adrienne Rich was, as the New York Times pointed out, a poet of vision who was at the forefront of modern feminism; an intellectual who affected how people thought of poetry, of their sisters and mothers. She was also a poet of great heart, of wild love, and care for the human being in all its different bodies. After the reading my small group of Adrienne Rich Pilgrims drove back to Eugene in a storm that became a soft but constant fall of snow. Perhaps we, four white males, are not the pilgrims you would imagine for Ms. Rich. But it is through poems, through art, through readings like Ms. Rich gave, that one finds transcendence into human compassion, into the beautiful song of The Other. We sat in the snow-quiet night, on the front porch of the house we shared, drank Grappa out of little cheap glasses and read Rich’s poems to each other. We could not get enough. And either could the night: with every poem it seemed like the snow fell a little harder, a little more, and with grace.
As I write this it has been raining for two days, beginning with the morning Adrienne Rich died. It feels like it will rain forever. It feels like the loss of someone like Ms. Rich is limitless… because it is limitless.