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Book Review: ‘The Power of Adrienne Rich,’ by Hilary Holladay

She’d met Conrad before she left for Oxford, where she went to study and write. There she fell in with a crowd that included the poets Donald Hall and Geoffrey Hill. She began publishing poems in The New Yorker, rare for someone in their 20s, while there. The magazine gave her a first-reading agreement and paid her an annual stipend.

The couple married in 1953 and moved to New York City, where Conrad taught economics at City University and Rich wrote and taught at several schools. As the 1950s became the 1960s, both became increasingly political. Rich had been plagued by rheumatoid arthritis since her 20s, and she could not march in the streets. Conrad did enough of that for both of them.

Rich’s political awakening became a feminist one. She began to see her father as a tyrannical patriarch, for good and ill. She saw how Harvard shunted women off to the side at Radcliffe. She sensed she was a token female in the largely male poetry world. The oink of male chauvinism, she found, was impossible to evade.

Her husband traveled a good deal and their marriage frayed. Holladay’s biography builds, in many ways, toward a scene in 1970 in which Rich declares, to her husband and friends, including the poet Hayden Carruth, that she “planned to give away her pots and pans and do a lot less cooking.” It was the first step into a new life.

Hilary Holladay, author of “The Power of Adrienne Rich,” a new biography.Credit…Kesia L. Carlson

Rich’s first real relationship with a woman was with her older, imposing analyst, Lilly Engler. (Engler had slept with Sontag, as would Rich.) Rich’s time with Engler informed the poems that would announce her coming out as a lesbian, collected in “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978). The eroticism in these poems was radical for the time; Rich wrote of strong tongues and “my rose-wet cave.”

Rich’s sexuality was forceful and complicated. She and Conrad, for a time, had an open marriage. Rich slept with Robert Lowell, among others. Later she would have an affair with the poet June Jordan. (Rich paid for Jordan to see a therapist after she left her.) Her friend Audre Lorde attempted to seduce her — Rich preferred to remain friends. Rich met the woman with whom she would spend the final decades of her life, the Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff, in 1976. At the time Cliff was a copy editor at Norton, Rich’s publisher, working on one of Rich’s books.

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