She was fierce. Once, when I was a shy young poet-hopeful who wrote for the feminist and gay press, I met her. I worried when she said she was following my writing (did I mention I was shy? and young?), because I couldn’t imagine anyone so august reading my work except to critique it. I preferred to follow her at a safe distance, through her writing, with their searing instructions to be awake, true, and relentless in observing the world honestly.
It hardly needs to be said, but I need to say it: She inspired my generation of young female writers and young political lesbians. Reading her work aloud to each other filled us with hope and purpose. She wrote, somewhere, that we should read the poet Muriel Rukeyser: we did. When I locked myself in my office to write, four hours a day, as I did during my twenties and thirties, I often started by reading aloud and then memorizing some of her lines. Even now, they float up in my head sometimes, illuminating a moment:
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan and Isolde is scarcely the story.
Looking over my copies of her books, I find that The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 ($2.95!!) is the most battered. I would read from 21 Love Poems aloud to my beloved ex, long ago, when we were starting our twenty years together, back when we deeply intended to be together forever. The lines were so direct they almost now sound cliché—but they spoke keenly to us:
Two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work
heroic in its ordinariness.
The New York Times’ obituary does her justice.