Adrienne Rich, one of the leading American poets of the 20th century, died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Anything you read about her will emphasize her identity as a feminist and a lesbian, which is perfectly appropriate, but don’t let it get in the way of the fact that she was an amazingly inventive and affecting poet. She was also widely admired as a lecturer and essayist. (And I can only imagine she would have cringed at the line in the NYT obit where it says she “burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.” Is bursting something one can do genteelly?)
This is the ending of “Planetarium,” about Caroline Herschel; the entire poem is here.
I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me And has
taken I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.