I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s poetry (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”) when I was in my early twenties, but I first read Adrienne Rich’s poetry—it would have been Diving into the Wreck—when I was in my early thirties, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, where I found my life’s partner, and through her, the courage to come out. But it is Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” that became a part of my life.
My partner, Valerie, and I were married on May 24, 1986, in a chapel on the campus of Brandeis University. The officiating minister was careful to state during the service that she was not marrying us by the power vested in her by the state of Massachusetts, but rather, by the power granted by a Creator of love and equality. Valerie and I had met with the minister several times, and had shared with her the vows that we had written, each incorporating one of Rich’s love poems (II and XII). The minister chose to use these lines from XIX in the service:
two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness,
the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch
where the fiercest attention becomes routine
–look at the faces of those who have chosen it.
When, 20 years later, a nephew asked me to give the toast following his wedding, I returned to that poem and to the line, “two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness,” because I had come to understand not only the heroic labor of that ordinariness, but the joy as well.
Today, I am remembering the gifts of Adrienne Rich, the honesty and the fierceness and the intelligence, and I am remembering, as well, those two nervous, but proud, young women who turned to her for a language of dreams.
II. (from Adrienne Rich, Twenty-One Love Poems)
I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you’ve been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I’ve been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…
and I laugh and fall dreaming again of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.
XII. (from Adrienne Rich, Twenty-One Love Poems)
Sleeping, turning in turn like planets
rotating in their midnight meadow:
a touch is enough to let us know
we’re not alone in the universe, even in sleep:
the dream-ghosts of two worlds
walking their ghost-towns, almost address each other.
I’ve wakened to your muttered words
spoken light- or dark-years away
as if my own voice had spoken.
But we have different voices, even in sleep, and our bodies, so
alike, are yet so different
and the past echoing through our bloodstreams
is freighted with different language, different meanings—
though in any chronicle of the world we share
it could be written with new meaning
we were two lovers of one gender,
we were two women of one generation.