Sunday, May 02, 2021

Where I came from, what I knew, and Adrienne Rich's "For Memory"

In Adrienne Rich's "For Memory", there are things "we must [...] simply say": "this is where I came from / this is what I knew". With Rich, I come from being a reader of her poetry from the early 1980s on (and even her student in a Feminist Studies class in 1986). Back then, I knew – and wanted to mend – what Rich calls "gashes in our understandings / of this world", but I also thought I knew that change would come from epiphanies, such as "walk[ing] out / under the Milky Way", rather than from "daily" and "routine" work like the raking of the leaves at the beginning of the poem. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 May 2021)


For Memory

Adrienne Rich, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981)


Old words: trust     fidelity

Nothing new yet to take their place.


I rake leaves, clear the lawn, October grass

painfully green beneath the gold

and in this silent labor thoughts of you

start up

I hear your voice: disloyalty     betrayal

stinging the wires


I stuff the old leaves into sacks

and still they fall and still

I see my work undone


One shivering rainswept afternoon

and the whole job to be done over


I can’t know what you know

unless you tell me

there are gashes in our understandings

of this world

We came together in a common

fury of direction

barely mentioning difference

(what drew our finest hairs

to fire

the deep, difficult troughs


I fell through a basement railing

the first day of school and cut my forehead open–

did I ever tell you? More than forty years

and I still remember smelling my own blood

like the smell of a new schoolbook

And did you ever tell me

how your mother called you in from play

and from whom? To what? These atoms filmed by ordinary dust

that common life we each and all bent out of orbit from

to which we must return simply to say

this is where I came from

this is what I knew


The past is not a husk    yet change goes on


Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out

under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers

of light, the fields of dark–

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine

remembering. Putting together, inch by inch

the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.



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