Life Beyond Medicine

The Passing of Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich died from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis which she had suffered from all her adult life. She was 82 when she passed away last Tuesday.

Adrienne Rich, 1987: Credits: Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Purported to be one of the most widely read poets of the latter half of last century, her work was marked by its true blue support for feminism. Being a female, homosexual, Jew, she was triply ostracized in her times. She had married Alfred Haskell, a Professor of Economics at Harvard in 1953. She said of her marriage:

“I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family […] I wanted what I saw as a full woman’s life, whatever was possible.”

She had three children with her husband but it was clear that she was never happy having suppressed her sexuality to accept societal norms. By 1970 the cracks were starting to widen in their marriage and in the same year her husband died of a gun shot wound to the head, which was ruled to be a suicide.

She effectively came out in 1976 with the publication of her work “Twenty one love poems” the base of which was sexual love between women. Naturally it shocked and dismayed the critics but took her a step closer to the cult status that she enjoyed in the American literature.

Adrienne Rich was at the fore front of the gay rights revolution ever since her coming out and her poetry and fiery feminism were a part of the whole movement. She has received numerous awards and has been honored as a teacher, a poet and a subject of study in the past few years but her real contribution remains in being one of the pillars that shaped and provided a voice to the oppressed and victimized sexual minorities. Being marginalized herself, her writings were steeped with the fragrant of reality. Often staccato and prosaic, her verses were a powerful mode of expression that left the reader wanting more. Eventually, even her critics had to accept the powerful work of this revolutionary poet.

In a side note it is worth noticing that Adrienne Rich was the daughter of Dr. Arnold Rice Rich, the famous American Pathologist. Dr. Rich was an MD from the Johns Hopkins Medical School and remained associated with the institution till the very end of his career. He was the Chairman of the Department of Pathology and the Pathologist-in-Chief at Johns Hopkins from 1944 to 1958, till the time of his superannuation. Medical history buffs are aware that he was one of the pioneers in the study of Tuberculosis and the immune responses associated with it. He is credited with the description of the tuberculous granuloma of the cerebral cortex (which ruptures into the subarachnoid space to give rise to tuberculous meningitis), which is named Rich Focus after him. (1) The rather rare and severe lung disease called Hamman Rich Syndrome (acute interstitial pneumonitis) is also named in his honor. He described this syndrome way back in 1935 alongwith Louis Hamman. (2) Unfortunately, till today there seems to be no effective therapy for this (thankfully) rare disease.

I know I am digressing a bit, but I shall be amiss in my duties if I did not mention one of the most powerful quotes of Louis Hamman:

“The physician, consciously or otherwise, depends for success in his practice on his abilities as a psychiatrist.”

Widely regarded as one of the pioneering clinicians of his day, Hamman was also a graduate from Johns Hopkins who did his internship in New York. After completion, he came back to head the Phipps Tuberculosis Center. (3) Hamman has one of the most elegant auscultatory finding named after him: Hamman’s sign or Hamman’s crunch is a crunching, rasping sound heard in sync with the heartbeat in case of pneumomediastinum.

Anyways, coming back to Adrienne Rich. She was home schooled by her father. Her poetry has a haunting feel to it and although sometimes I do not understand the full portent of what she is trying to convey, the images and the stumbling rhythm never fails to amaze me. Some of my favorite works of Rich are from her landmark work Twenty one love poems. They are lyrical like sonnets, though they do not conform to the traditional laws and definitions of a sonnet.

One of the most notable features of her poetry was that her work was not divorced from the harsh reality. Though she spoke of sexuality and desire, her work was marred by the orthodoxy of the societal norms that built walls between lovers. The tension between sexuality and reality are palpable in some of her work. And that tells us the struggle she and the homosexual people of a bygone era had to go through.

If I could let you know—
two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work
heroic in its ordinariness . . .
—look at the faces of those who have chosen it.

Somehow this reminds me of Shakespeare’s words: “Love is not love, /Which alters when alteration it finds;/ And bends with the remover to remove.”

Adrienne Rich may no longer be amidst us in the physical world, but she has ensured that her words continue to reverberate through time and keep reaching out to people who are oppressed and outcast and give them the strength to carry on…

Music when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory…

Hat tip: Dr. Bob Richmond from the Pathology Discussion group for bringing this sad news to my attention.

References:

1. Donald PR, Schaaf HS, Schoeman JF (April 2005). “Tuberculous meningitis and miliary tuberculosis: the Rich focus revisited”. J. Infect. 50 (3): 193–5. doi:10.1016/j.jinf.2004.02.010.PMID 15780412

2. Hamman, L; Rich AR (1935). “Fulminating diffuse interstitial fibrosis of the lungs”. Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association (European Respiratory Society) 51: 154–163.

3. Alan Mason Chesney (1943). The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: 1893–1905. The Johns Hopkins Press. p. 367. Retrieved 12 March 2012

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3 thoughts on “The Passing of Adrienne Rich

    • Thanks for dropping by and caring to comment. I was introduced to her work by a friend who happened to be a gay rights activist. I loved her on the first read!

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