Which of these women was the real Rich? The dutiful daughter, the star undergrad, the excellent cook? Or the political poet who used every platform she had—and she had many—to criticize violence in all its forms? This is the question that the scholar and writer Hilary Holladay poses in The Power of Adrienne Rich, the first biography of the poet and, one hopes, not the last. 'Who was she? Who was she really?' Holladay asks near the end of the book. Her question recalls a claim she makes in the preface, where she argues that Rich never felt she had a 'definitive identity,' and that 'the absence of a fully knowable self'—a 'wound,' in Holladay’s words—spurred her on, to both self-discovery and creative success. According to Holladay, the only secure identity Rich ever found was in her art. 'That is who and what she is,' Holladay concludes.
... allows us to meet this prickly poet fresh and entire. It’s the first proper biography of her, and there’s a lot to unpack. This is a good story well-told ... If Holladay’s solid biography has a weak spot, it’s that she makes it difficult for anyone to criticize Rich’s work, for any reason whatsoever, and not be thought complicit in the grinding machinery of misogyny ... Holladay is a sensitive reader of Rich’s poetry. She also explicates Rich’s windswept moods.
... capacious, generous ... Holladay devotes perhaps too many pages to Rich’s star turn at the 1974 National Book Awards, where she, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker together accepted her prize on behalf of 'all the women.' But the fame was real: For decades, her readings filled auditoriums ... Rich’s first lesbian partners included the activist poet June Jordan and Susan Sontag. A light sense of unaddressed controversies, of material withheld, lingers over Holladay’s treatment of those years. Yet she resolves the greatest mystery in Rich’s career, the identity of the lover in Twenty-One Love Poems ... Holladay asserts, a bit defensively, that the poet was no dogmatic separatist.