Adrienne Rich, One Life

“One Life.”

My friend says this when her toes are at some edge– when the dark below can be downed in a gulp because the risk is worth it. You can say it in French if you need some extra oomf, Une Vie.

I found this poem at the public library in Toronto, flipping through Adrienne Rich’s Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988. I was killing some time, out for a walk before my band’s set at a crummy punk tavern, hoping for some half page to hit me hard. I saw the title and I thought it might affirm my friend’s brave and careless motto. I was looking for some fuck it, let’s do it sentiment.  In a way, I got what I wanted.

One Life

A woman walking in a walker on the cliffs
recalls great bodily joys, much pain.
Nothing in her is apt to say
My heart aches, though she read those words
in a battered college text, this morning
as the sun rose. It is all too
mixed, the heart too mixed with laughter
raucousing the grief, her life
too mixed, she shakes her heavy
silvered hair at all the fixed
declarations of baggage. I should be dead and I’m alive
don’t ask me how; I don’t eat like I should
and still I like how the drop of vodka
hits the tongue. I was a worker and a mother,
that means a worker and a worker
but for one you don’t pay union dues
or get a pension; for the other
the men ran the union, we ran the home.
It was terrible and good, we had more than half a life,
I had four lives at least, one out of marriage
when I kicked up all the dust I could
before I knew what I was doing.
One life with the girls on the line during the war,
yes, painting our legs and jitterbugging together
one life with a husband, not the worst,
one with your children, none of it just what you’d thought.
None of it what it could have been, if we’d known.
We took what we could.
But even this is a life, I’m reading a lot of books
I never read, my daughter brought home from school,
plays where you can almost hear them talking,
Romantic poets, Isaac Babel. A lot of lives
worse and better than what I knew. I’m walking again.
My heart doesn’t ache; sometimes though it rages.


With all that we carry, can it be just One Life? It is though– I mean, I think it’s one; the many is the one. We walk with our same heart between our same body walls. Growing, shrinking, thumping, crumbling. We don’t know what we’re doing. It’s nothing like we thought it’d be.  If we’d known (better). We know more as the mighty reward if our minds and bodies make it.  One life, with so many happenings, it is hard to say which one it is. The paths we walk mount each other, terrible and good. It rages.

RIP, Adrienne Rich May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012


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Filed under Poetry, Prose, Rambling

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