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Adrienne Rich has died.  I have used her work in worship (“Transcendental Etude,” excerpted in our hymnal) and preached on it ( “Power“) and quoted it in my statement of why I’m a minister and what my vocation is about (“Natural Resources”):

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.

It sometimes gets printed, incorrectly, in this way:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save,
so much has been destroyed.

I have to cast my lot with those . . . etc.

Breaking the sentence into two sentences that way, and making the first half a complete statement, implies that the rest is somehow separate: that “casting our lot” is what we do in spite of this heartbreak and this destruction. But what the poem says to me, says for me, as it was written, is that it is because so much has been destroyed that I want to be among those who dedicate their lives to tikkun olam, the repair and healing and remaking of the world. That is more powerful and empowering.

As soon as I read of her death, I thought of the poem of Rich’s whose phrases have the most staying power in my mind, “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev.” I wanted to post it here, but it does not print out correctly on the computer and I don’t want to mangle it, so I hope you will click on the link and read it as she wrote it. (I also recommend reading it aloud.)

The main texts for my sophomore English class in college were the Norton anthology and Rich’s collection The Fact of a Doorframe (1984 edition; the later one omits “Phantasia”). If I recall correctly, it was the only volume by a single poet that was required. Piece after piece in that book was poetry by Emily Dickinson’s definition: it took off the top of my head. It never has fit back on the same way since, and marvelous things drift in and out that would not have taken shape if not for her words. Thank you, Adrienne Rich.


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