Grief is not apparel—Essex Hemphill
Yesterday, I swore not to write anything about Adrienne Rich.
Writing felt premature, as though grief could find a language beyond keening. I have never felt as close to keening. And so I sought refuge in twitter, hoping someone would say something, create a space I could inhabit. But it was too much, mourning blended in with comments about “papers to be written.” Adrienne Rich was the loss that could not be named, the loss named through repetition, as, over and over, fragments of her poems swirled through twitter, reminders of the patterns she carved in our souls.
I thought I would re-read her, walked to my shelves, picked out The Dream of a Common Language and Diving into the Wreck. I have opened and shut these books multiple times since then, read fragments, found myself unable to read any entire poems. I want them around me, to surround me, remind me of her, but I cannot read them. Not just yet.
I learned about Rich’s death, yes, death, that ugly, impossible word, from my best friend. From an email message. A message filled with tears. And I could not respond. Still can’t. In my fantasies, Rich lives forever, is always there. I want to say that she gave me language, taught me to name. Yet, as I look over her work, unable to read it, I see the spaces between words, the signature gaps that mark pauses, breaks, ruptures, listening. And I think: she gave me the pause. She gave me the gaps between words.
Before Rich, I had not thought the gaps between words mattered. Reading was moving from one word to the other, one image to the other, one fragment to the other. One could linger on the image, the word, the fragment, but one hurried past the gap, aware, perhaps, that to pause in the gap, to linger in the pause, was to risk too much. One sought to move past what Jabès describes as the desert, the void. Where one’s thoughts became too loud, where one was overwhelmed by the demand that happens between words, between language. Rich taught me how to linger in that gap—a painful lesson I have yet to learn.
I might have written without Rich—I probably would have. But I do not know that I would have dared as much. My first essay, “Living Mythically,” was written as I was reading her. And while she does not appear in it, the “I” that emerges is indebted to her. She taught me how to use the “I” to write about collectivity, how to think about experience as the grounds for staging an intervention.
To call Rich my “teacher” seems inadequate. But nothing else comes close to describing her influence. Jesus was called “teacher.” In Kenya, we say “mwalimu.” We mean to say people who have marked our souls, who direct our paths, who leave traces we can hope to follow, who give us the courage to go elsewhere.
“whatever happens, this is”
Queer feeling is too readily dismissed as ephemeral, fleeting, a phase. So, too, queer acting. You will grow out of it, a too-kind parent says, offering a lifeline that can sink one. Queer feeling, the sensation that one is not quite like others, too readily seeks refuge in shadows, in forgettability. We cling to corners and claim to like wallflowers and the smell of dust and the shapes of cobwebs. And we are told that the right sport or the right medication or the right bible camp will fix us. And, sometimes, still too often, we believe in the power of shadows, mistrust sensation, mistrust feeling, become shadowy. Ephemeral. What Essex Hemphill so beautifully, and tragically, described as “invisible.”
And we give up those fleeting moments of feeling otherwise, acting otherwise, being otherwise. Accept the wisdom of those who name “phases” and “stages,” rush ahead to “grow up,” “grow out of,” “leave behind.” Believe “this” never was.
“whatever happens, this is”
It’s difficult, almost impossible, to hold on to the ephemerality of “this.” To find a way to value “this.” To claim “this” for memory. For life. A queer “this” struggles against other moments we are told are “this”: one’s first date, one’s first kiss, one’s first marriage, one’s first experience of childbirth. There are moments marked as “this,” as “significant.”
Rich offered a way to speak of “this-ness.” A way to imbue the fleeting, the barely felt, the might-have-been, the it-probably-wasn’t, with a measure of “this is.” It is not that the ephemeral became solid, sure, less fleeting. Instead, ephemerality could be valued.
“No one has imagined us.”
To insist on “this is” is to make a claim beyond what has been “imagined.” Rich’s powerful description of compulsory heterosexuality described a world that dared not imagine queer lives, queer possibilities. In the 3 decades since that essay first appeared, queer lives have become more possible in some parts of the world, even as we continue to struggle to be “imagined.”
The pause, the gap, the space between words was one such space for imagination: one could change pronouns, imagine oneself into a world, imagine a world for oneself.
It is difficult, almost impossible, to envision a gap, a space, a pause as more than a void, an abyss. It is easy to believe that “this” should be tossed into that abyss, along with the self that dared to believe in “this.” It is easy to lose the ephemeral, to discard the fleeting, to long for the materiality of what has been imagined, what is compulsory. The “thingness” that is termed “reality.”
And it’s difficult, almost impossible, to say how much I owe Rich for teaching me the possibilities of the gap, the pause, the ellipses.
Grief is darker.
It is a wig
that does not rest gently
on my head.—Essex Hemphill