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Adrienne Rich caps Poetry at Media Lab series


Bartos Theatre, MIT Wiesner Building.

Thursday, April 26.

Presented as part of the Poetry at the

Media Lab series.


LAST THURSDAY, over 600 people showed up at the Media Lab to hear Adrienne Rich read her poetry. Fittingly, the largest crowd of the year was treated to the finest reading of the Poetry at the Media Lab series, funded by the MIT Council for the Arts, the Women's Studies program, and the Dean's Office.

Initially, the size of the crowd caused problems for the volunteers who ran the series. To accommodate the overflow, the start of the reading was delayed while audio was fed into speakers in nearby rooms so that everyone could hear. While many artists would have been upset by such a delay, Rich instead read a few poems and spoke to the audience.

After the audio arrangements were complete, Ruth Whitman of MIT's Writing Program gave the introduction. Whitman recalled knowing a "gifted, obedient" Radcliffe student who since has "grown into a courageous, defiant woman, full of passion," who is now "lodestar, someone who has served as a guiding light" to women and given them hope.

In keeping with the series' practice of having poets read a selection of works that have influenced them, Rich began by reading two poems by the Cree poet Joy Harjo. "Grace" is about the plight of Native Americans and the hard times they face as a "dispossessed people." "Transformations" is a poem in the form of a letter, written to a Native American friend who has been overtaken by hate and anger over the situation of their people. Rich paid tribute to writers like Harjo who write about freedom and the efforts of oppressed people to bring about change.

She has also drawn inspiration from the Czechoslovak writer, Vaclav Havel, who is now the president of that country. Before reading from a book of Havel's essays, Living in Truth, she spoke about the "stagnation" that has characterized the 1980s, and how America -- a country of "quick fixes" -- has followed "trivial pursuits," and that while watching the events of 1989, we have generally failed to recognize that such events have not come about overnight. The events of Eastern Europe, China, and South Africa have been the result of the efforts of many individuals over many years, and these kinds of efforts must continue to be supported for all such movements, from South Africa to the women's movement here in America.

Rich began reading from her own work with "Margonita," "The Fact of a Door Frame," and "What Is Possible."

Perhaps the most powerful poem of the evening was "Frame." This poem revolves around a well-publicized 1979 court case in which a Boston University student filed charges against police who brutally arrested her for trespassing when she sought shelter from driving snow in one of the university's buildings, while waiting for a bus. Rich brought the audience to the scene of the incident in the form of a witness who can see everything, but is unable to help. While feelings of sympathy for the student and disgust at the conduct of the police are strong, stronger are the feelings of frustration at not being able to help or speak out.

Another striking poem was "Yom Kippur 1984," a personal poem about Rich's experiences upon moving to California and finding herself without a familiar community during Jewish holidays. The poem conveys deep feelings of isolation -- "I drew solitude over me on the long short" -- and feelings of longing for community -- ". . . to be with my people is my deepest wish. . . . Do my people forgive me?"

Rich finished with three poems from her book, Time's Power. "Divisions of Power" speaks about the plight of women "whose labor remakes the world/each and every morning," yet who sit in the "back rows of politics," and cope with the place in society that has been selected for them. "The Desert as Garden of Paradise" brings the audience to actual and figurative deserts, places where freedom movements often find their beginnings. The final poem of the evening was "Dreamwood."

To convey a sense of the power of Adrienne Rich's poetry without writing out her poems in full is futile -- such a feeling can only be attained by reading her books. What is not in her books, however, is the way in which she reads to the audience. While most poets have read well in this series, Rich transcended that. She did not sound as though she were reading words from a page; rather, she used the pages in front of her as a guide to help express her inner feelings.


The final reading of this year's Poetry at the Media Lab series will be on May 17. This will be the student/staff reading. The selection of the readers has not yet been completed. -- JS