Inte­ri­or mono­logue of the poet:
the notes for the poem are the only poem”
—from Images for Godard” in The Will to Change (1971) by Adri­enne Rich

The act of writ­ing a poem is like stand­ing in mourn­ing, say­ing Kad­dish. You hear voic­es around you mur­mur­ing words, the same words you, your­self are say­ing, soft­ly, auto­mat­i­cal­ly, as though they are an incan­ta­tion. You can­not ful­ly dis­tin­guish your voice from the voic­es of the peo­ple around you. The words flow from your tongue as though by ancient dic­tate. Your words and the words of the peo­ple around you sur­round you, fill the space that is emp­ty and cold. Some­times every­one breathes togeth­er, and some­times they do not. And some­times every­one speaks around you and all you can do is muster the strength to stand, imag­in­ing the words being spo­ken from your lips. The role of the Jew in mourn­ing is to be present, to stand, to recite the Kad­dish. The role of the poet is to be present, to arrive each morn­ing wait­ing for words, to write even if the words do not arrive. Some­times poets write, some­times poet rewrite, some­times poets sim­ply stand, lis­ten­ing to oth­ers intone the words they are com­mand­ed to speak. This is the act of writ­ing a poem. Lis­ten­ing, speak­ing, writing.

The mid­dle sec­tion of my new poet­ry col­lec­tion, Sis­ter­hood, is a sequence of poems about my sister’s death. For a long time, I fierce­ly resist­ed writ­ing these poems. One rea­son I resist­ed writ­ing about my sister’s death is the line from Adri­enne Rich: The moment of change is the only poem.” I mis­un­der­stood what this line means about writ­ing poet­ry. I did not read Rich’s 1971 col­lec­tion, The Will to Change, care­ful­ly. I thought that the moment of change was lit­er­al­ly the moment of polit­i­cal change: water­shed moments like the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act, the Stonewall rebel­lions, the AIDS Drug Assis­tant Pro­gram, the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, the Lawrence v. Texas deci­sion, the Unit­ed States v. Wind­sor deci­sion. For many years, I thought that Rich was say­ing that these were the only poems — and this embold­ened me. I worked as an activist. I worked through grief, not sit­ting at a desk to write each morn­ing, but orga­niz­ing peo­ple, strength­en­ing the will to change.

Rich’s line now has become an apho­rism, but in the poem, it is part of a progress from the open­ing cou­plet where the notes for the poem are the only poem,” to the cen­ter of the poem where the mind of the poet is the only poem” to the con­clu­sion about the moment of change” as the only poem.” This tra­jec­to­ry tells me some­thing dif­fer­ent about the act of writ­ing poems. Still, when I returned to writ­ing, I wor­ried about being con­sumed by nar­row con­tent. My sister’s death felt not like a moment of change, but like a moment that resist­ed change, a moment that was frozen in time. She was here on this Earth and then she was gone. Imag­in­ing a life with­out her was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly impos­si­ble and the only kind of life we could live. Most­ly, I did not want my writ­ing defined by loss, par­tic­u­lar­ly not a loss that felt so usu­al, so ordi­nary, so unre­mark­able out­side our fam­i­ly. A car acci­dent. A Sat­ur­day morn­ing. Noth­ing polit­i­cal. Noth­ing inten­tion­al. No rem­e­dy. No repa­ra­tions. Just the freak­ish way our lives unfold.

I want­ed my obses­sive con­tent to have more mean­ing. I want­ed my life to make sense in a larg­er polit­i­cal world. My grief felt so small in the face of the grief of the world, in the face of injus­tice and inequality.

Say­ing Kad­dish, I real­ized those ancient words expressed the ordi­nar­i­ness of my sister’s death and that they could be spo­ken in my own words, with my own tongue. Now, approach­ing the eigh­teenth anniver­sary of her death, she is held in time, per­ma­nent­ly fixed. My life has con­tin­ued to swirl around her. Now, the poem Tat­tered Kad­dish” by Adri­enne Rich offers me solace. Rich writes in the final line: Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.” These poems in Sis­ter­hood are plain­songs; they tell how I loved my one sis­ter who died and how I loved many oth­er women, when I could.

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry