The quality of being complete; unbroken condition; entirety
A wild patience has taken me this far
as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor
old sweaters, nets, spray-mottled books
tossed in the prow
some kind of sun burning my shoulder-blades.
Splashing the oarlocks. Burning through.
Your fore-arms can get scalded, licked with pain
in a sun blotted like unspoken anger
behind a casual mist.
The length of daylight
this far north, in this
forty-ninth year of my life
The light is critical: of me, of this
long-dreamed, involuntary landing
on the arm of an inland sea.
The glitter of the shoal
depleting into shadow
I recognize: the stand of pines
violet-black really, green in the old postcard
but really I have nothing but myself
to go by; nothing
stands in the realm of pure necessity
except what my hands can hold.
Nothing but myself?….My selves.
After so long, this answer.
As if I had always known
I steer the boat in, simply.
The motor dying on the pebbles
cicadas taking up the hum
dropped in the silence.
Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere —
even from a broken web.
The cabin in the stand of pines
is still for sale. I know this. Know the print
of the last foot, the hand that slammed and locked the door,
then stopped to wreathe the rain-smashed clematis
back on the trellis
for no one’s sake except its own.
I know the chart nailed to the wallboards
the icy kettle squatting on the burner.
The hands that hammered in those nails
emptied that kettle one last time
are these two hands
and they have caught the baby leaping
from between trembling legs
and they have worked the vacuum aspirator
and stroked the sweated temples
and steered the boat there through this hot
misblotted sunlight, critical light
the skin these hands will also salve.
Throughout her life, Second Wave feminist poet Adrienne Rich received many literary awards, the 1996 Tanning Award, the National Book Award, more than one Guggenheim Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. In 1997, though, at the age of 68, she declined a National Medal for the Arts. This is the letter she wrote:
July 3, 1997
Jane Alexander, Chair The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20506
Dear Jane Alexander,
I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of the 12 recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.
Anyone familiar with my work from the early `60s on knows that I believe in art’s social presence–as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art–in my own case poetry–means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.
I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.
cc: President Clinton