You can find Adrienne Rich in anthologies of Jewish American poetry, but most of her many admirers do not think of her first (if at all) as a Jewish poet: they think of her as a feminist poet, as a political poet, as a GLBT activist, as a talented artificer in traditional metrical forms (during the 1950s) as a maker of harshly original free verse (during the 1960s), as a woman who challenged herself to overcome "the fact of being separate" (as she put it in the early 1970s) in order to speak to and about other people's needs. Though Rich's father was Jewish (as was her late husband), she did not identify herself with any religion for most of her writing life: in high school, she recalled, "I am quite sure I was seen as Jewish (with a reassuringly gentile mother) in that double vision that bigotry allows." Her ambitious, assimilationist father, however, "did not give me the choice to be a Jew."
Rich's 1982 essay "Split at the Root," from which those sentences come, describes her long-delayed decision to call herself Jewish in print. If you read Rich's poem "Jerusalem" (1966) you will see her view religious heritage as an excuse for violence and a trap: "What I dream of the city," she writes, "is how hard it is to leave." An even earlier poem, "At the Jewish New Year," insisted on Rosh Hashanah that "this day is merely one/ Of thirty in September," and that "whatever we strain to forget/ Our memory must be long": "we" here means not Jews but assimilated Jews, Jews who want to distance themselves (but cannot distance themselves enough) from their shared religious past.
Rich's later poems, by contrast, show her reclaiming Judaism as something to which she says she might want to belong. These poems often address the Baltimore family in which she grew up. "Grandmothers" (1980), for example, pays belated tribute to Hattie Rice Rich, the poet's father's mother, whose "sweetness of soul was a mystery to me," but in Rich's youth "a convenience for everyone": "you rose with the birds and children, boiled your own egg," "took the street-car downtown shopping/ endlessly for your son's whims, the whims of genius," and "All through World War Two the forbidden word/ Jewish was barely uttered in your son's house."
Rich is a poet of confrontation, one whose imagination flares at shows of defiant strength, and in this poem she can defy her Jewish father by acknowledging, as he did not want to acknowledge, the hard and quiet work done by her grandmother in bringing him up, work that Arnold Rich (in his daughter's telling) overlooked. Rich has two grandmothers, but "Grandmothers" has three parts: one part for her maternal grandmother, who "married straight out of the convent school," one part for Hattie Rice Rich, Arnold's mother, and one part for Adrienne herself, entitled "Granddaughter," in which she describes herself as "born a white woman, Jewish or of curious mind," and newly interested in "'blood,' the all-powerful awful theme."
By "blood" Rich means, here, not the shedding of blood (as she did in "Jerusalem") but the lines of descent, the passing down of habits and beliefs (accompanied, in this instance, by passed-down genes), which enable Rich, the daughter of a Jew and a non-Jew, to call herself Jewish, and to explore, in middle age, the aspects of Judaism that said the most to her. And that is what she did in the book she wrote after finishing "Grandmothers," the book she would call Your Native Land, Your Life. That book includes Rich's most accomplished poem on a Jewish theme, "Yom Kippur 1984," named for the day of fasting, self-examination and repentance that occurs near, but not at, the start of each Jewish year.
"Yom Kippur, 1984" explores the twinned Jewish obligations—especially relevant on Yom Kippur— to consider one's own life, to reflect on one's actions inwardly, as an individual, and the obligation—for observant Jews, a matter of Jewish law; for Rich, perhaps, a matter of ethics—to be with other Jews at certain times (Jewish law requires a minyan, at least ten Jews praying together, before certain prayers can be said). "Yom Kippur, 1984" begins:
What is a Jew in solitude?
What would it mean not to feel lonely or afraid
far from your own or those you have called your own?
What is a woman in solitude: a queer woman or man?
In the empty street, on the empty beach, in the desert
what in this world as it is can solitude mean?
Rich sees Jewish affiliation, the decision to call oneself a Jew, as one example among many of protective solidarity: "the Jew on the icy, rutted road on Christmas Eve prays for another Jew/ the woman in the ungainly twisting shadows of the street: Make those be/ a woman's footsteps; as if she could believe in a woman's god." She then admits, vexing herself, that "I also love separateness." Like almost all poets, she needs some time alone, unhindered by what other people expect her to say, whether in a synagogue or at a dinner table. Can she identify herself with a group—with Jews, for example—and still preserve the solitude, the distance from expectations, which all poets need? The poem ends not by answering but by repeating the question, and asking what it would mean in a just world, a world in which we no longer wanted group identifications—religions, nations, labels of many kinds—for mutual protection, and could no longer use them to keep other people away.
Not coincidentally Rich uses very long, end-stopped lines for this poem: she has said that she associates these lines not just with the poetry of the Hebrew Bible but with Walt Whitman, that great poet of connections among Americans, and with Robinson Jeffers, the Californian poet of American misanthropy and solitude. Neither Whitman nor Jeffers were Jewish, but Rich, here, says that she is: she takes a Jewish occasion to reconsider the choices she has made—about where to live, how to spend her time and energy, how to write—and in doing so identifies her own poetic practice with a kind of ethically oriented self-examination we might think of as Jewish too. On Yom Kippur Jews are asked to consider the previous year as a series of acts and decisions taken or declined; the Kol Nidre prayer, in which we ask divine forgiveness for obligations that we could not have carried out, is part of the service, but so too is the reminder that if we owe something to another human being, we must fulfill our obligation to that human being, not to a divine substitute.
Rich has used her Jewish material here to think both about family and about herself alone, to think both about solitude and about obligation. She will choose solitary reflection over participation in rituals and social occasions that seem to her false or oppressive (that's one reason she famously refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts). And yet her temperament has always drawn her also to shared tasks, to the ways in which people can work together to improve their lot. That is the Jewish mitzvah of tikkun olam, often and rightly invoked as a religious justification for political activism, and it is one of the ways that Rich, "split at the root" and alert to her contradictions, finds herself, still, writing Jewish books.
Stephen Burt is an Associate Professor of English at Harvard University. His latest books are a work of literary criticism, The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence, a chapbook, Shot Clocks: Poems and an Essay for the WNBA, and a book of poems, Parallel Play. He blogs regularly for the Poetry Foundation.