Adrienne Rich on What a Great Blue Heron Taught Her About the Intersection of Art, Science, and Politics in Human Life
In praise of the moments when “a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.”
By Maria Popova
A great many brilliant creators can point to a single formative experience — an epiphany-like encounter with truth, a momentary glimpse of beauty in its highest form — that furnished a certain understanding of the world, steering them toward their chosen field of endeavor. For Patti Smith, it was a swan at the lake; for Pablo Neruda, a hand through the fence, for Virginia Woolf, a flower mound; for Anne Truitt, a Picasso painting; for Albert Einstein, his first compass; for James Baldwin, a reflection in a puddle.
Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a brilliant poet and a woman of formidable political conviction — relays one such revelatory experience in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (public library), an altogether spectacular collection of her letters, diary entries, dreams, and critical reflections on literature.
Rich recounts coming home from an errand to discover a pair of enormous beating wings lifting off from her deck — not a giant gull, as she reflexively surmised, nor even a raven, but a majestic Great Blue Heron. She writes:
I had never seen one from below or from so near: usually from a car window on a road above a small bay or inlet. I had not seen one many times at all. I was not sure. Poised there on the peak of the roof, it looked immense, fastidious, apparently calm. It turned a little; seemed to gaze as far into the blue air as the curve of the earth would allow; took a slow, ritualistic, provocative step or two. I could see the two wirelike plumes streaming from the back of its head.
I walked quietly into the garden toward the fence between the two houses, speaking to it in a low voice. I told it that I thanked it for having come; that I wanted it to be safe. I moved backward again a little to look at it better. Suddenly it was in air, had flapped out of sight.
This dreamlike encounter sent her on a spiraling inquiry into the cultural climate surrounding the magnificent bird — not just how a century of rapid so-called progress has impacted its ecology, but “what has been happening in our social fabric, our emotional and sensual life, during that century.” Pulling a guide to Pacific Coast wildlife from her bookcase, Rich found herself mesmerized by the names we’ve given species by some seemingly arbitrary agreement — names like Dire Whelk, Dusky Tegula, By-the-Wind Sailor, Crumb-of-Bread Sponge, and Ghost Shrimp.
In a complement to the notion that naming confers dignity upon existence, Rich considers the general use of language in human life and its particular application in giving names:
I began to think about the names, beginning with the sound and image delivered in the name “Great Blue Heron,” as tokens of a time when naming was poetry, when connections between things and living beings, or living things and human beings, were instinctively apprehended. By “a time” I don’t mean any one historical or linguistic moment or period. I mean all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses.
With an eye to the parallels between science, poetry, and politics, Rich reflects on how names can both dignify and objectify, grant power and take it away:
This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root. Poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities — poetry, science, politics — triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives. Instead, over centuries, they have become separated — poetry from politics, poetic naming from scientific naming, an ostensibly “neutral” science from political questions, “rational” science from lyrical poetry…
The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol. Wandered inadvertently or purposefully inland, maybe drought-driven, to a backyard habitat, it is a bird, Ardea herodias, whose form, dimensions, and habits have been described by ornithologists, yet whose intangible ways of being and knowing remain beyond my — or anyone’s — reach. If I spoke to it, it was because I needed to acknowledge in words the rarity and signifying power of its appearance, not because I thought it had come to me. The tall, foot-poised creature had a life, a place of its own in the manifold, fragile system that is this coastline; a place of its own in the universe. Its place, and mine, I believe, are equal and interdependent. Neither of us — woman or bird — is a symbol, despite efforts to make us that.
With her characteristic mastery of nuance, Rich reframes her encounter. The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol and it isn’t an epiphany, either — it isn’t a means to her own artistic ends, nor a gift from the universe intended to serve her personal enlightenment. It is, rather, an agent in that attentive aliveness which makes poetry, makes art, makes life worth living. With her gift for strumming multiple cultural strings in one melodic stroke, Rich writes:
A Mohawk Indian friend says she began writing “after a motor trip through the Mohawk Valley, when a Bald Eagle flew in front of her car, sat in a tree, and instructed her to write.” Very little in my own heritage has suggested to me that a wild living creature might come to bring me a direct personal message. And I know too that a complex humor underlies my friend’s statement (I do not mean it is a joke). I am suspicious — first of all, in myself — of adopted mysticisms, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other “exotic” ways of understanding. I made no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor. But our trajectories crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.
What Is Found There is a magnificent, sublimely layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on how silence fertilizes the imagination, what “truth” really means, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, and her terrific tribute to Marie Curie.
Published March 24, 2016