For readers interested in feminist writing coming from North America, The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography by Hilary Holladay is certainly great news.
Adrienne Rich needs no introduction. She was one of the most prominent and influential activists and thinkers belonging to the second wave of feminism. Her poetry collections including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Diving into the Wreck, and Twenty One Love Poems have inspired generations of poets with a penchant for radical takes on identity and society. Her essays, especially “When we Dead Awaken” and “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, were equally powerful and well received by readers.
She was one of those rare breeds of white feminist writers who could transcend their racial identity and express solidarity with black feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde. There, however, was a lack of material on a comprehensive sketch of her life that will help us place her poetry in context and understand the full range of her writing.
Hilary Holladay’s biography of Rich intends to fill in that gap. Both a journalist and an academic, Holladay in her book shows how the America Rich inherited disrupted and shaped her, and how she was essential to the second-wave of feminism.
Rich was not born a rebel. When she had started her literary career as a young woman, she did not curve away from the traditional female role the then American society demanded. In 1951, she enrolled at Radcliffe (then Harvard’s college for women) and later, after her marriage with Alfred H Conrad with whom she had three sons, she tried to find a place in the male-dominated literary circles centring around Boston University. As Hollayday writes, she was a “vigilant mom by day, chain-smoking, hard-drinking poet by night.”
Hollayday, with a detailed portrayal of different episodes in Rich’s life, sketches how since the 1960s Rich realised that she “had to come out as a woman,” and accordingly, how the feminist consciousness began to be more prominent in her poetry. In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, she pulverised the poetic conventions and traditions that she termed “patriarchal”. In her subsequent collections, Hollayday points out, her stance continued to be stronger and more radical.
Rich was a self-professed “pessimistic optimist”, a lesbian separatist, who gradually moved away from her earlier radical views about gender and society only to make her feminist praxis more inclusive and more relevant to people of all colours and orientations.
Hilary Holladay’s biography of Adrienne Rich tells a very compelling and beautiful story not only of a gifted poet and writer but also of triumphs, where “trauma is not the end of the story,” rather the “beginning”.