Brain Pickings

Adrienne Rich’s 1968 Poem “Gabriel” Read by Tom O’Bedlam

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“I get your message Gabriel / just will you stay looking / straight at me / awhile longer”

This year, we lost celebrated poet, essayist, feminist, and MacArthur “genius” Adrienne Rich. (On my mother’s birthday, no less.)

In this exclusive reading, spoken-verse maestro Tom O’Bedlam — who also gave us Dorianne Laux’s “Antilamentation” and Charles Bukowski’s “so you want to be a writer” — brings to life Rich’s 1968 poem “Gabriel,” part of her Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (public library). Enjoy.

There are no angels yet
here comes an angel one
shut-off the dark
side of the moon turning to me
and saying: I am the plumed
serpent the beast
with fangs of fire and a gentle
heart

But he doesn’t say that His message
drenches his body
he’d want to kill me
for using words to name him

I sit in the bare apartment
reading
words stream past me poetry
twentieth-century rivers
disturbed surfaces reflecting clouds
reflecting wrinkled neon
but clogged and mostly
nothing alive left
in their depths

The angel is barely
speaking to me
Once in a horn of light
he stood or someone like him
salutations in gold-leaf
ribboning from his lips
Today again the hair streams
to his shoulders
the eyes reflect something
like a lost country or so I think
but the ribbon has reeled itself
up

He isn’t giving
or taking any shit
We glance miserably
across the room at each other

It’s true there are moments
closer and closer together
when words stick in my throat
‘the art of love’
‘the art of words’

I get your message Gabriel
just will you stay looking
straight at me
awhile longer

Rich’s final collection of poems, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010, was published shortly before her death.

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