Do the Catwalk

Doing the catwalk
Doing the catwalk

This year, I’m challenging myself–and any of you who care to join–to claim your own catwalk to move across steadily and with as much grace as we can muster. I’m not talking about a Kate Moss catwalk, but the kind that’s tethered near the tops of trees, a single cable you inch across for the heady experience, and just to convince yourself you can do it. Mine has something to do with picking up and moving on without one of my biggest cheerleaders, searching for contact with the wire, checking my fear at the tree and pressing on to the next one. (And yes, that’s me in the photo last year, nearly hyperventilating with a fear of heights but moving across as I’d urged my students to do. We all made it, unscathed.) The breeze will blow; my balance will not be constant; the air will grow cold. But walking the line requires trusting I can find some words, some truth. I’m harnessed in, after all, so all I love will break my fall.

In her poem, “Apples,” Grace Schulman writes, “beauty strikes just once,/ hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,/ tasting of earth and song, I’d risk exile.” The act of inching across the catwalk is a deliberate pursuit of beauty, but the risk is real, and it can feel like exile. Waiting months for the response of an esteemed publication. Then getting it. Over and over. There are compliments as well as critiques. There is hope. But the rope is high and the trek is long.

This month, I’m revising (for the twenty-something time) several poems in an evolving book-length manuscript while trying to work up a new class on portfolio development for creative writers and kick out a couple of new poem drafts. Then it’ll be a recommitment to sending out small batches of poems. Step by pensive step, I inch across. I think of my lifelong cheerleader, my confidante, my first reader, whose death still does not quite feel real. She wanted to be a writer, but wrote very little. She did publish one article and write a couple of stories and a song. She really wanted me to succeed. I have to walk the walk for myself . . . but I know it’s for her, too. At this rate I may not break any land speed records, but then, I’m not touching the ground.

So, what is your catwalk? What’s your plan to get across?

For Adrienne Rich

They led a writing workshop together in Austin...
Rich (right), with writer Audre Lorde (left) and Meridel Le Sueur (middle) in Austin Texas, 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:

The New Androgyne

She will be like the deaf mute                                                 turned composer:

ink will pulse               through her veins the color

of half-lit midnight                  when grass sways slightly

By turns she will be            gardener and stargazer                  peasant

and prophet                      bag-lady                                   and carpetbagger

pointillist                                                                 and modern dancer

delivering mother                                and midwife delivering

the mother                                           and her child

You will see her                           gradually

rising with the sun                   her origins uncertain

her language                        raw and bold                       her hands stained

strong-boned                                 her eyes deep                    as Andromeda

She will take                                   by the first two fingers

anyone who will                             enter the labyrinth                               listen

to the crackling of leaves                     as she infuses them                with breath

and witness                         her gypsy dance                as she steadily

wrenches                                 an arc of bone                          from her side

–Kathleen McCoy

In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich.  While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.

Rich helped to show the world the value of the women’s liberation motto that “The personal is political.” This is a good time to reread some of her unforgettable poems like An Atlas of the Difficult World, “Sources,” “Integrity,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” and “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Or you may want to read one of her landmark essays such as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Split at the Root,” or her historic rejection of the National Medal of Arts in 1997, when she dared to write to Jane Alexander, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept an award for a few privileged artists when “the people at large are so dishonored” in this country.

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