Some years ago when I was an undergraduate just beginning to think seriously about poetry, I met Adrienne Rich. In fact, I picked her up from her hotel and drove her through downtown Boston to the UMass Boston campus for her lecture. It was my mentor and friend Askold Melnyczuk who was coordinating the reading series, and though I’d just met him that semester in his introduction to fiction writing class, he saw in me enough poetic promise to send me to chauffer Ms. Rich through the mid-day traffic nightmare that is Boston proper.
At the time I was driving a small Hyundai Accent, a relic from my high school days when it was the only car I could afford, and I needed a car living out in Framingham where I attended an alternative private school. Which was why I’d went to UMass Boston in the first place, actually. No grades, no transcript, a local state school seemed my best option, and even that took a lot of conversation about how they could possibly evaluate my application. I was advised to take a summer course on campus so they’d have at least one grade to judge my admissibility by. I took Introduction to Creative Writing. I (thankfully) remember very little of what I wrote for that class, but I do know that it must have been angst-ridden self-absorbed drivel. What really stuck with me was the reading assignments, from the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature. A poem by Diane Ackerman, “sweep me through your many-chambered heart” which for years I recited to myself daily. Suddenly I was aware of not what was said but how it was said. And that made all the difference.
Two years later, after being admitted to UMass Boston (with the original intention to transfer somewhere “better”) and turning down an admission to a much fancier “writing-focused” undergraduate program in upstate New York, I was firmly embedded in the urban, working-class, diverse, mature writing community on campus. The Joiner Center Writer’s Workshop brought in poets like Martín Espada and Yousef Komunyakka; Askold brought in poets like Kevin Young and Tomas Sayers Ellis. I developed a new awareness of writing in the world, that writing didn’t have to be exclusively interior, or that interiority could become so much more. The personal, political.
It was then I met Adrienne Rich. I can’t call her Adrienne, we only had the briefest of encounters and it seems too personal to use her first name. Still, when I called her Ms. Rich she laughed. I picked her up in front of her hotel in Downtown Boston, on Commonwealth Ave. overlooking the Mall, part of Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a system of parks, fens, and rivers running through the city and, according to Wikipedia, “the only remaining intact linear park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s first landscape architect.”
If I remember correctly, and likely I don’t, she was waiting for me on a bench outside the hotel. It was a lovely spring day. I knew it was her because I’d looked her up, and read as much of her poetry as I could in the previous few weeks, since Askold had told me I’d be given the honor of escorting her to campus. Other students were going to be escorting her on campus, sitting with her at the organized lunch. But I would be the first UMass Boston student she’d meet on this visit. I’d have the most time alone with her. I should use it well.
Adrienne Rich was an award-winning poet and essayist. A pioneer feminist, gay-rights and anti-war activist.
I remember her being diminutive, surprisingly so. I remember her having a little difficulty walking, but not too bad, she said. She got into my car, double parked in the valet spot so she would have the smallest distance to cross. I remember turning it on, her commenting on the fact that I drove stick, chatting about that, about Boston, about how things have changed. I remember knowing the route I would take, knowing approximately how long I had, knowing that I had an obligation to impress her, on behalf of UMass Boston, that I had an obligation to get the most out of this encounter.
I remember silence. I remember wanting to talk with her about “Diving Into The Wreck,” about how reading it made me shiver with the memory of my own descents into water, into the world. I remember knowing that nothing I could say could really stick and hold. That whatever it had been that shook me when I read “The Art of Translation” had to do with her reaching into a tangle of associations I couldn’t even unravel and pulling. And pulling out from herself and out from me the sense that what I thought, what I experienced mattered, not despite my gender or politics but because of it. I remember wanting to tell her that she’d changed me, changed my writing, changed my view of the world and of art within it.
We arrived about twenty minutes later to campus, where I was to drop her off at the Healey Library basement. Lunch was on the 11th floor of the library, with views of Boston Harbor and Marina Island from the brick and concrete compound that was our campus, built in the 70s and capable of being entirely locked down in case of a student riot. The students never rioted. There are three ways into the Healey Library, which has its main entrance on its second floor. A set of concrete stairs suspended over the central brick plaza of the campus leading into the glass catwalk that connects all the buildings, because the snow and ice in the winter get whipped around by the wind off the ocean. Adrienne Rich couldn’t possibly be asked to climb a flight and a half of windy, concrete stairs.
The other way to get to the main entrance was from the catwalk itself, coming from the Administration building, recently converted into classrooms when Admissions and the Registrar and Financial Aid all moved over to the brand-new Campus Center, a shining white and glass building facing towards rather than away from the sea. Or from the Science building, one in which I spent almost no time at all. Both required a substantial walk in the catwalk, too far for Adrienne Rich to do comfortably.
So the only choice was through the basement, into the service elevator the facility managers used to bring the trash down to the loading dock. The garage had been closed for repairs – one of the problems of using poured concrete at the ocean was that the salt air ate away at structures. The garage may or may not be safe any longer. Students joked that it was closed because that’s where Jimmy Hoffa’s body had been disposed of, entombed among the concrete pillars in the yellow-light darkness of the UMass Boston parking garage. A joke that referred to the University’s supposed mob-ties, since William T. Bulger had been the president of the entire UMass system since 1996. His brother, Whitey, was arrested just last year after a 16-year man hunt by the FBI. He’d been living in a rent-controlled apartment in California.
We needed special permission to drive into the dilapidated garage, and we had it. I had practiced this before, walking through the library with T. Michael Sullivan, the coordinator of the Joiner Center’s Writing Workshop. We started on the 11th floor: “This is where we’ll have lunch.” and took the back elevator down to the Upper Level, which was 2 floors beneath the 2nd floor entrance to the library, where the doors opened into the damp dark of the abandoned garage. Michael lit a cigarette, sipped his coffee, and we stood there contemplating the cracked concrete. “You can park anywhere,” he said.
When Adrienne Rich and I parked in front of the elevator, Michael and Askold and two other students were there already, waiting for us. I helped her out of the car, carried her bag of books, Askold offered her his arm to help navigate the pocked cement floor. We climbed into the elevator and rode it to the light, airy glassed-in room on the 11th floor. Before we exited the elevator, Adrienne Rich thanked me, she gave me a slight, tentative hug.
I sat at a table far from her at lunch. I’d already had my allotted access to her. I sat in the front row for the reading, waited at the end of the line for her to sign my book afterwards. Askold had said she might not sign everyone’s book, depending on how her hands felt. But she persevered, I’d say over 50 copies, each one possible torture for her arthritic hands. Her commitment to us, her readers at this urban working-class state school, was palpable. She had said she would only sign one book per person, and though I had brought two, I only asked her to sign the copy of her collection of essays Arts of the Possible for my mother, a first-wave feminist and scholar.
I was the last person in line, though her escorts for the rest of the day were hovering behind her, waiting to move on to the next event, a private dinner with faculty. I thanked her for coming to UMass Boston. She saw that I was holding a copy of the recently-released Fox and asked me if I didn’t want her to sign it, to me, as well. Her hand shook and she wrote “For Erica -” at the top and her name at the bottom of the title page.
It is this copy of Fox I opened again today, to think of her in that moment, kind and generous, open and brilliant, a luminous figure with the sun glaring in from the ocean through the windows behind her. Her shaking hand. Her tentative embrace.