“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.