Rich, Adrienne: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine. "Adrienne Rich and Lesbian/Feminist Poetry." Parnassus 12-13, nos. 2-1 (spring-summer and fall-winter 1985): 249-68.

In the following essay, Stimpson traces the development of lesbian and feminist themes throughout Rich's poetic career.

… it is the subjects, the conversations, the facts we shy away from, which claim us in the form of writer's block, as mere rhetoric, as hysteria, insomnia, and constriction of the throat.1

Four years after … (Adrienne Rich) published her first book, I read it in almost disbelieving wonder; someone my age was writing down my life … I had not known till then how much I had wanted a contemporary and a woman as a speaking voice of life.…2

"Lesbian." For many, heterosexual or homosexual, the word still constricts the throat. Those "slimy" sibilants; those "nasty" nasalities. "Lesbian" makes even "feminist" sound lissome, decent, sane. In 1975, Adrienne Rich's reputation was secure.3 She might have eased up and toyed with honors. Yet, she was doing nothing less than seizing and caressing that word: "lesbian." She was working hard for "a whole new poetry" that was to begin in two women's "limitless desire."4

Few poetic things could be more difficult—even for a writer of such fire, stone, and fern. For the "intense charge of the word lesbian, and… all its deliquescences of meaning …, "(On Lies, Secrets, and Silence 202) necessarily provoke readings that are potent, but confused, confusing, and contradictory. Some of us read Rich with disbelieving wonder. Imagine being a mother, in court, on the stand, in the dock, during a child custody case. Your husband's lawyer asks, with brutal repetition, "When did you first kiss this woman?" Imagine, then, the gratitude and relief of hearing … [The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, p. 59].

Yet, others read with wondrous disbelief. Alicia Ostriker, my colleague, pugnaciously declared Rich's "myth" of female sexuality "too narrow":

"I find the Lesbian Imperative offensively totalitarian, and would prefer to defend human diversity as well as human liberty."5

To add to the mess, even some of the supporters and defenders of Rich's sexual ideology find the call for a "whole new poetry" an emblazoned naiveté. Surely, they whisper nervously, she must know about our post-structural awareness of the nature of the sign. Surely, she must realize that language is a fiction, not a transparent vehicle of truth; that signifiers are bits and bytes of an arbitrary system, not elements in a holistic union of word and idea, word and thing. Surely, she must now admit that this system creates the human subject, not the other way around.6 Others grumble that Rich's theory contradicts her poetic practice. The first is new, the second old. Rhetorically, she is more like—well, Robert Lowell—than Gertrude Stein. Rich undermines her calls for action, Marjorie Perloff claims, because of her "… conservative rhetoric, a rhetoric indistinguishable from the Male Oppressor."7

This messiness is ironic—if only because Rich herself is radiantly clear. She is, of course, one of a number of outspoken lesbian poets of the last part of the American Century. She resists being laid down as the star track in what ought to be a multiple-trek tape of the language of such women as Judy Grahn, Susan Griffin, Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde, Susan Sherman. "To isolate what I write," she has warned, "from a context of other women writing and speaking feels like an old, painfully familiar critical strategy."8 Yet, I want, in gratitude and relief, to spell out how she has moved from the constriction of the throat to the construction of the page.

Before the 1970s, Rich had published poems about the feelings, social relations, and mythic promise of women. "Women" (1968) sees three sisters "… sitting / on rocks of black obsidian," versions of the fates. (Poems Selected and New, 1950-1974, 109) Deromanticizing heterosexual love, Rich had written of the strains and loneliness within marriage. Symbolically, she had put aside a 1962 poem, "For Judith, Taking Leave." 9 Here a speaker longingly memorializes another woman, Judith: "… a singular event … a beautiful thing I saw." (PSN [Poems Selected and New, 1950-1974, ] 132) The speaker praises feminist predecessors who "suffered ridicule" for them. Then, in the middle of the poem, she calls out.… PSN, 132].

Only to add, as the line runs on to the next, "with two men—."

In the early 1970s, Rich riskily uncoiled the repressed sexual and psychological materials that she had once coiled and from which she had subsequently recoiled. She announces that release in "Re-forming the Crystal." Addressed to a man, it gives him his due, and discharge. The speaker first imagines what male sexuality, "desire / centered in a cock," might feel like. However, she passes on, old identity gone. Voice at once tough and exultant, she states, "my photo on the license isnotme.…" (PSN, 228) She will move, a key word in Rich's vocabulary of action, to "… the field of a poem wired with danger … into the cratered night of female memory.…"Women now live to the nerves' limit with women. Inevitably, some poems counterpoint past identity with present; tradition with radical change. "For L. G.: Unseen for Twenty Years" ruefully wonders who, and where, a male homosexual might be. He and the speaker had been boon travelling companions twenty years before, when both were turning to men.

Significantly, "Re-forming the Crystal" alternates vertical columns of "poetry" with paragraphs of "prose." For Rich was producing controversial, influential prose as well as poetry. From 1981 to 1983, she and Michelle Cliff were to edit Sinister Wisdom, a lesbian/feminist journal. Rich, a sophisticated student of the genetics of the text, coherently crossed autobiography with biography; polemic with scholarship; political theory with literary criticism.10 In part, her transgressions of generic conventions are the deconstructive gestures of post-modernism—without much manic play or ludic romps. In greater part, her mingling of "subjective" and "objective" genres, advocacy and argument, demonstrates her belief in their inseparability. Her style also emblemizes the position of contemporary, educated women. No longer forced to choose between public or private lives, women can lead both—at once. No longer forced to choose between writing about public or private concerns, women can take on both—at once.11

Rich had consistently been "a poet of ideas,"12 of hewn arguments as well as images. Now her ideas, doubly sited, could reinforce and annotate each other. In its totality, her work is that of a kind of conceptual artist. What is disturbing and dazzling is not the familiar notion of a conceptual artist, but the content of her ideas. Rich's lesbian/feminism reveals both the steely, stubborn logic of the geometrician (or the convert) and the sinuousness of imaginative reason. Those who insist that she is the Great Generalissima of Lesbian Poetry resist granting her her habitual gift for pragmatic self-revision and subtlety. "… the subject of truth," she noted in 1975. "There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no 'the truth,' 'a truth'—truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity." (LSS [On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, ] 187) Yet, she consistently walks out from the cultural space in which the libraries of her father and of Harvard University had enclosed her. She announces the primacy of a woman's perspective and of women as subjects. The eye of the female writing "I" fastens on the presence of a woman. The voice of the inquiring woman asks of herself and other women: "… how she came to be for-herself and how she identified with and was able to use women's culture, a women's tradition; and what the presence of other women meant in her life." (LSS, 158)

Rich, as other feminists were doing, insists upon an idea of time as a tragic process, a fall into patriarchy. However, she promises, we can reverse that process. We can outwrestle, outwit, and feminize time. Skillfully, Rich splices two mutually enhancing narratives together that dramatize her idea of time's procession. The first is that of the self. In her prose, Rich persistently tests her generalizations against her own experiences. In her poetry, she articulates experience and discovers its meaning. Though the poetic self has a vast capacity for experiences, it reveals itself, rather than develops, in time. Indeed, a measure of development is the degree of revelation. So convinced, Rich assumes the primacy of the primal self. Appropriately, then, "Natural Resources" brilliantly extends the trope of the woman miner, as both rhetorical and historical figure. The miner excavates experience to find buried strata. In other passages, Rich is a Dickinsonian surgeon, "… cutting away / dead flesh, cauterizing old scars.…" (DCL [The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, ] 70) She rips away the tissue that covers old wounds, old traumas, to recover the origins of self and pain.

In her narrative, Rich is a child whom two women (one white, one black) first love before they turn her over to the father. The reality of the maternal body gives way to the "charisma" of the father's "… assertive mind and temperament.…"13 Her reward for their rejection, and her loss, is his approval and the power of language, the conviction that "… language, writing, those pages of print could teach me how to live, could tell me what was possible." (LSS, 200) She becomes a child-of-the-word, unable to see that those pages veil and erase the feminine. Rich is no fan of psychoanalysis, but its tales and that of her passage from the tender passions of the realm of the mother to the symbolic order of the domain of the father half-echo each other.

Educated, a published poet, her father's pride, Rich then rejects the father—to marry a man he despises. She bears three sons. As Rich knows, but never exploits, the sheer masculinity of her heterosexual experience (the husband, the long marriage, the sons) burnishes her credibility as a witness of, and for, lesbianism. That credibility challenges a popular perception that lesbians are maculately sterile—either because they are butches, imitation men, or femmes, who will never receive the sperm of real men.

Rich's second narrative is that of any child, female or male. For them, "The mother-child relationship is the essential human relationship." (Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 127) Binding the two are the sucking mouth, the milky nipple, the mutual gaze. Then, the father—his demands, commands, needs, and seductions—will pick at those bonds; pick up his children and possess them all in a "savagely fathered and unmothered world." (PSN, 237) Heterosexual institutions damage both sons and daughters, but, Rich insists, in the crucial axiom of feminist theory, they damage women far more than men. Those institutions embody sufficient psychological, economic, social, and legal power to compel heterosexuality.14 That compulsion redirects women away from the first and most profound object of love, the mother. Rich writes: "Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has laid in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement." (OWB [Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, ] 225-26)

To redeem her past, and to begin her future, Rich must return to the mother's body, in memory or with other women. So must all women. Their sources are their natural resources. In a 1963 poem about marriage, Rich, in one of the crazy intuitive flashes we label the cognitive gift of poetry, describes wanting husband to be mother … ["Like This Together," (FD ) The Fact of a Door-frame: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 ].15

Not until she becomes a lesbian is she content; not until then can desire fulfill its needs. In Twenty-One Love Poems, she writes of her female lover's … [tongue and fingers.… DCL, 32].

The fecundity of woman is such that she can also give birth to and mother herself. Her body can be her "crib"; she can be her own "midwife." She can then become a matrix that mothers others, through personality or the page. Some evidence: in 1975, Nancy Milford, the writer, read through Rich's poetry. She had a dream of the person within "Diving into the Wreck." A maternal figure was walking towards, and empowering, her: "… naked, swaying, bending down … her full breasts brushing my cheek, moving toward my mouth … The hands of that diving woman become our own hands, reaching out, touching, holding; not in sex but in deliverance. That is the potency of her poetry.…"16

As Rich grounds women's thoughts and feelings in their bodies, she naturalizes them. Her poetry harvests the earth and the elements for its metaphors: the cave; trees; plants; flowers; fields; the volcano, at once peak to ascend and crater into which to descend, breast and genitals, cervix, womb. Rich, too, has absolute competence in composing a poem, in arranging implosive patterns of rhythm and sound. Because the quality of her verbal music and choreography is so assured, a reader learns to trust the palpability of a poem; its replication of the intellectual and emotional movements of experience.

Because of the pressure and magnetism of her metaphors; because of the surprising physicality of her lines; and because of her contempt for patriarchal culture, especially in its modern and urban forms, Rich may seem to be endorsing a feminized primitivism. However, she is far too intelligent a grammarian of reality to parse it into two opposing spheres of "nature" and "culture," and clamor only for the pristine ecological purities of the first. She constructs houses on her land. Rich's dream, her imaginative vision, is of an organic, but freeing, unity among body, nature, consciousness, vision, and community. Unequivocally, lyrically, she asks women to think through their maternal flesh and their own bodies, "… to connect what has been so cruelly disorganized—our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly developed tactile sense; our genius for close observation; our complicated, pain-enduring, multi-pleasured physicality." (OWB, 284) In a leap of faith, she wants women to become the presiding geniuses of their bodies in order to create new life—biologically and culturally. Their thoughts and visions will transform politics, "… alter human existence," sustain a "new relationship to the universe." (OWB, 285-86)

The primal bonds among mothers, sisters, and daughters are the soil from which lesbianism grows. Lesbianism does mean women's erotic passion. Indeed, the most explicitly erotic lyric in Twenty-One Love Poems is "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)," as if physical passion drifts and runs like a deep current through the seas of the connection between "I" and "you" in the sequence. However, Rich declares, in a move that lesbian/feminism, but not the culture-at-large, accepts, the lesbian cannot live only in and with love. "I want to call this, life." Rich writes, "But I can't call it life until we start to move / beyond this secret circle of fire.…" (DCL, 9) Moreover, a lesbianism that is more than a treasured carnality is a synecdoche for any female sexuality. Rich, like Monique Wittig, projects "… lesbian love (a)s a paradigm of female sexuality that is neither defined by men nor exploited by a phallocentric political system."17

Even more than a fancily labelled metaphor, even more than a schematized paradigm, lesbianism forms a "continuum," a range of "womanidentified" activities that embraces eros, friendship and intensity between women, resistance to gynephobia, and female strength. A woman can love men, live with men, and inhabit a point on this continuum—if she has managed some distance from patriarchal heterosexuality. For its imprisoning institutions have ripped daughters from mothers; lobotomized and slashed women's psychological, cultural, and political energies. As the brief accumulates in "Compulsory Heterosexuality," Rich mourns: "The denial of reality and visibility to women's passion for women, women's choice of women as allies, life companions, and community; the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other." (657) "Transcendental Etude," a chiselled monument of a poem, dedicated to Michelle Cliff, elegizes "rootless, dismembered" women, whose "Birth stripped our birthright from us, / tore us from a woman, from women, from ourselves." (DCL, 75)

If women are to change themselves and their social relations, if they are to liberate themselves and each other, they must revivify that lesbianism hidden or denied, feared or despised. Lesbianism is an imperative, not because Rich imposes it, but because it is a wellspring of identity that must be sprung if women are to claim any authentic identity at all. "It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the fathers in us is only a hack." (LSS, 201) I remember Rich giving us these words, quietly, tautly, in a New York hotel ballroom, in 1976, at a panel at the Modern Language Association. She leaned forward from a dais, where three other poets were also sitting: June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Honor Moore. I was on a chipped and gilded chair, between two scholar/critics: one a divorced mother, heterosexual, who called herself a lesbian out of political sympathy, a radical feminist act of the late 1960s and early 1970s; the second a married mother, about to begin a secret love affair with a woman, who rarely (if ever) spoke about lesbianism. "Right on," said the first. Enigmatically, the second looked at the husband next to her. Grinning, with the casualness of marriage, he affectionately slapped her thigh. There we were—an imperfect, blurry shadow of Rich's continuum.

Deftly, Rich's theories of female sexuality invert the accusatory slander that lesbianism is "unnatural." To Rich, what is "unnatural" is not the presence, but the absence, of women's bodies, to be "homesick … for a woman.…" (DCL, 75) In the 1970s, her theories were influenced by, and influences on, the cultural feminism that was a powerful strain in feminist thinking, particularly about sexuality, culture, and identity.18 Reconstituting and eroticizing nineteenth-century ideologies of gender, with their endorsement of "female" and "male" spheres, cultural feminism tends to divide the world into female and male; to idealize female sexuality and being, and to demonize male sexuality and doing. Ironically, some of the principles of cultural feminism gravitate toward a conservative ideology that prefers divinely authorized gender roles and "female" and "male" behaviors that fit squarely into them. However, cultural feminism's preference for women's communities, its commitment to women's self-determination, and its loathing of patriarchal heterosexuality dismay, and repel, right-wing flappers in the Eagle Forum and their ilk.

To discover that female sexuality and being, women are to nurture natural, but defaced and obliterated, capacities for nurture and for nature itself. With the help of scholars and artists, they are to unearth primal images of these capacities, and of rituals with which to celebrate them. Some of Rich's most poignant, lambent poems present the poet as a priestess in a service with a lost script; in a liturgy with missing words. In "Toward the Solstice," she laments that she does not know "in what language to address / the spirits that claim a place / beneath these low and simple ceilings." (DCL, 69) She fears that she has forgotten or failed to say the "right rune"; to "perform the needed acts.…" (70)

Such theories were to serve neither abstract debate (a "male" activity) nor mere poetic need (a self-indulgent sport). On the contrary. They were to be designs for action and for communal life. As a result, cultural feminists have taken sides in some of the most volatile political quarrels within United States feminism: How separate from the rest of society are women's groups to be? What is the relationship of feminism to other political movements and to the New Left? What is the meaning of pornography? What, if anything, should be done to banish it? Many of Rich's poems refer immediately to those fights. The controversial "For Ethel Rosenberg," for example, speaks vocatively to "Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg" … [(WP ) A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far ].19

"Take back the night" is a slogan and rallying cry for the anti-pornography movement that cultural feminism has conceived and organized. The words have inspired women. They flatten Rich's poem. Their presence gives some critics permission to tsk-tsk and scold Rich for letting a political agenda master a poet's imagination. She might legitimately scorn their motives and the blatancy of the division they invent between politics and poetry. However, she, too, is warily aware of any domination of her imagination. She fears the hunters, trappers, and wardens of the mind. One of her toughest poems, "North American Time," written in the gritty style of much of A Wild Patience, starts … [FD, 324].

Something hardens the difficulty of interweaving a passionate fidelity to a politics that wants to change the laws of history; to the imagination; and to the unconscious, which nourishes the imagination as mother does the child: the very terms of Rich's politics. For lesbian/feminism, the casting of the world as a duality of dominating male and damaged female carries the virus of a double threat: it reduces the world to a duality; it reduces women to a monolith. Rich distrusts the false universal, especially among women, who are to think more specifically than men. A resonant section of "Natural Resources," the 1977 revision of "Diving Into the Wreck," rejects the words "humanism" and "androgyny." They are falsely universal; therefore, universally false.

Rich has wonderfully escaped the nets she fears, the "impasse" at which some critics pin her.20 In part, she does so because of the Jamesian (William) belief in change that has marked all her work. We must live in an Einsteinian world of flux and chance that has neither "center nor circumference."21 We must work and wish for a world, not as it is, but as it might be. Yet, we must respond to time present as it presents and represents itself. Because errors and lapses can stain our responses, we must abandon dreams of purity, of final cures, of a process with an end.

Logically, then, responsibly, the lesbian/feminist Rich has continued to rewrite her sense of self and politics; to question what it means to "cast my lot" in the world and to be "accountable." More and more deeply, she has engaged the structures and pain of racism. She has said that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s lifted her "… out of a sense of personal frustration and hopelessness."22 However, the 1970s had to teach her the harsh stiffness of her own "racist blinders." Black women's response to Of Woman Born had to school her in her ignorance about them.23 Rich believes that political poetry emerges from the self's encounter with the world. Her explorations of race start with her black nurse, her other mother. Necessarily, she cannot rest there. She must go on to still other structures, other pains, of domination. Racism is inseparable from still another vise and vice of modern politics: colonialism. "To understand colonization," she writes, with self-consciousness and some self-contempt, "is taking me / years." (A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, 55)

Some of Rich's most ambitious lesbian/feminist poems speak for all women and mourn their suffering, affliction, and powerlessness: "From an Old House in America," "Culture and Anarchy," "For Julia in Nebraska." Like Rich's poems about her grandmothers, they offer women their history; the arts of their endurance. Because Rich fuses women with nature, especially with the land, a history of people is a pangyneric record of place as well.

However, the recognition of racism and colonialism demands that Rich issue a series of ironic, searing, yet empathetic poems about cultivated white women with the disadvantages of sex but the advantages of class and race. A tart observation, "No room for nostalgia here," opens "Turning the Wheel," an extraordinary 1981 sequence in which Rich returns to a desert landscape. (WP 52-59) The wheel belongs to both a modern woman driving her car and a Native American woman creating her pottery. The speaker sees a "lesbian archaeologist," studying shards, who asks "… the clay all questions but her own." She imagines, too, a letter that Mary Jane Colter might have written home. Colter, an architect and designer, planned buildings at the Grand Canyon for the Santa Fe Railroad. She both preserved and appropriated Native American culture. Two years later, in "Education of a Novelist," Rich calls across time to another Southern writer, Ellen Glasgow. She condemns Glasgow for not teaching her black nurse, Lizzie Jones, to read, but confesses: … [FD, 317].

Lesbian/feminist politics remain, but Rich's perceptions expand upon them. She thinks, not only of male domination, but of a system of iron patterns of power that wheel and deal and work together. Pornography violently debases and exploits women, but its nauseating "objectification" of women also warns us against slavery—of anyone by anyone.24

Rich now wants, in women, both "difference and identity." Women share the architecture of their bodies, the humiliation and mutilation of those bodies. What "fuses my anger now …," she wrote in 1978, "… is that we were told we were utterly different." (LSS, 310) Yet, as race proves, so obviously, so profoundly, women differ, too. With delicate audacity, Rich pushes at the boundaries of those differences, pushes for the specific, and particular. As she does so, she uncovers, and must enter, still another buried part of herself: her Jewishness, the faith of father, husband, and first woman lover. She circles back to Jerusalem, the original City on the Hill. Sources, perhaps her most fragmented but suggestive book, exhumes that past. Rich affirms her "powerful" and "womanly" choices; a "powerful, womanly lens"—in brief, the domain of the mother.25 However, Sources returns to the domain of the fathers, and to their vulnerability and pain. Arnold Rich, her father, was the outwardly successful, assimilated son of a Jewish shoe merchant from Birmingham, Alabama. Powerful and arrogant patriarch though he was, he also bore "the suffering of the Jew, the alien stamp." (15) Her mother carried the cultural genes of the Christianity that would stamp Jews out.

Then, with immense dignity, Rich writes to Alfred Conrad, the husband who committed suicide. She has had "… a sense of protecting your existence, not using it merely as a theme for poetry or tragic musings." (32) Now, for the first time, she believes he might hear her. "No person," her elegy ends, "should have to be so alone.…" (33) She has passed through the moral and psychological process that some of her most magnificent poems—"The Phenomenology of Anger," "Integrity" —envision: that between wildness and patience, rage and pitying compassion, fire and water and tears. She has completed the hardest of swings between "Anger and tenderness: my selves." (WP, 9)26

That fusion of the moral and the psychological, the ethical and the emotional, marks Rich. Her writing inflects a stable vocabulary of the good that flows, as feminism itself does, from principles of the Enlightenment, radical democracy, and a redemptive domesticity: freedom; choice; truth; a lucidity as clear as water pouring over rocks; gentleness, an active charity, swabbing "the crusted stump." (DCL, 63) The last of Twenty-One Love Poems asserts … [DCL, 36].

As insistently, Rich's writing asks how to reconcile the claims of autonomy (being free, having will) and the claims of connection (being together, having unity). Connections fuse within the self, between lover and beloved, with others. "Sometimes I feel," she wrote in 1982, "I have seen too long from too many disconnected angles: white, Jewish, anti-Semite, racist, anti-racist, once-married, lesbian, middle-class, feminist, exmatriate Southerner, split at the root."27 She longs, then, for wholeness, for touch, a desire the hand signifies. The hand. It holds the pen, clasps the child, finds the lover, sews the quilt, cleans the pot, dusts the house. For Rich, hands hammer nails, empty kettles, catch babies leaping from the womb, work vacuum aspirators, stroke "sweated temples" (both body and sanctuary), steer boats. (WP, 9) The hand also knots in anger, smashes in pain. As palms are the canvas of our life-lines, so the figure of the hand backs Rich's vision.

Before the 1960s, her lesbian/feminism was, if not inconceivable, unspeakable. Yet, if her ideas are contemporary, her sense of the poet is not. For Rich refuses to sever poetry from prophecy, those morally driven, passionately uttered visions of things unseen and foreseen, and poetry from witnessing, those morally driven, passionately uttered insights into actions seen. What she said of Dickinson she might have said of herself:

"Poetic language … is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self … there is a more ancient concept of the poet (as well) … she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who—for whatever reasons—are less conscious of what they are living through." (LSS, 181)28 She is painfully aware that she cannot control what might happen to her words after she chooses them, but she is accountable for that choice, and for her accuracy.

Rich's lesbian/feminism helps to sculpt her role as prophet and witness. Because patriarchal culture has been silent about lesbians and "all women who are not defined by the men in their lives,"29 the prophet/witness must give speech to experience for the first time. This is one meaning of writing a whole new poetry. However, patriarchal culture has not been consistently silent. Sometimes, it has lied about lesbians. The prophet/witness must then speak truth to, and about, power. At other times, patriarchal culture has distorted or trivialized lesbians. The prophet/witness must then use and affirm "… a vocabulary that has been used negatively and pejoratively."30 She must transvalue language.

Necessarily, the prophet/witness is a performer. She demands an audience, primarily of women. However, the ideology of lesbian/feminism is suspicious of star turns. Rich herself writes in "Transcendental Etude" … [DCL, 74].

The performing Rich—unlike Walt Whitman or Jeremiah—has more stamina than flash; more intensity than ebullience. She is a laser rather than an explosion of fireworks. She will speak, but in "North American Time," a grim, colloquial meditation on the poet's responsibility, she says, self-deprecatingly … [FD, 327].

She will also speak, if possible, to an audience of many women. She is allusive and intricate, but rarely elusive and snobby. In part, she has the clarity of classical poetry. In part, she has the clarity of one who wishes to be heard.31



While, in "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," the poet and poetry are virtually consumed from within, in this poem the poet's analysis of her anger as phenomenon allows the fire to be expressed in condemnation of the most horrible atrocities, and to forge a new language and consciousness. Rich's "dream of a common language" depends first of all on the capacity to create a new subjectivity which avoids the threats of "madness" and "suicide," to refine anger to an "acetylene" intensity and focus, and then to share that new consciousness with others who "burn" similarly under the weight of oppression. In poems like "Nightbreak," where her body becomes the Vietnamese village, or "Planetarium," where she similarly becomes the receptacle for radio signals, Rich takes the status of victim into her own consciousness and even her own body. She forges a new, feminist subjectivity based on the rejection rather than imposition of oppression, the identification with rather than opposition to "the enemy."

Greenwald, Elissa. "The Dream of a Common Language: Vietnam Poetry as Reformation of Language and Feeling in the Poems of Adrienne Rich," Journal of American Culture 16, no. 3, (fall 1993): 97-102.

But what language will she speak? Clearly, Rich believes in the power of language to represent ideas, feelings, and events. Although she writes about film and photography, she is no postmodern celebrant of the visual media. She fears that mass TV induces passivity, atrophies the literacy and language we need to "take on the most complex, subtle, and drastic re-evaluation ever attempted of the condition of the species." (LSS, 12) Her dream of a common language is of words, a shared cultural frame and thread, communal and quotidian, "hewn of the commonest living subtance" as well as "violent, arcane." (PSN, 232)

Yet, the lesbian/feminist poet cannot accept language that smoothly. What is she to do with the fact that the powerful have used language to choke and to erase her? To mystify and to disguise? Some French theoreticians of écriture féminine advocate stealing, and then, flying away with the oppressor's speech. That theft and that escape are acts of re-appropriation and control. Certainly, in her references to male poets—yes, even to Robert Lowell, Rich shows her authority.32 More fervently, Rich selects female experience—the body; mothers, daughters, and granddaughters; lesbianism; women's history—as her subject. Men, too, have written such experiences up and down, but men, because they are men, have been false prophets, narcissistic and perjuring witnesses.

Sadly, that selection offers little ease. For what is Rich, who believes in poetry, to do with the fact that lesbian/feminism has naturalized female experience? That lesbian/feminism has rooted female experience less in language than in things, objects, inarticulate but pregnant silences? Rich's poetry itself shows how craftily she handles the issue. First, she reduces the physical presence of language on the page. She wipes away diacritical marks, the busyness of syntax. Then, she alternates words with blank spaces—for breathing, for gazing. As she pushes language towards silence, she does to the verbal image what Nathalie Sarraute (or, in her way, Jane Austen) does to narrative. Yet, she refuses silence. She has words, and doubts-in-words.

Read "The Images." (WP, 3-5) The poem is a series of six sections, each an irregular series of staggered three-or four-line sections. The eye cautions the reader against regularities, sonorities. Two women are in bed. In the "pain of the city," the speaker turns. Her hand touches her lover "before language names in the brain." The speaker chooses touch, but not this city, where both images of women, and the looks of men, string women out and crucify them.

The speaker then recognizes that she has romanticized language, music, art, "frescoes translating / violence into patterns so powerful and pure / we continually fail to ask are they true for us." In contrast, when she now walks among "time-battered stones," she can think of her lover. She has gone to the sea, among flowering weeds, and drawn a flower. She has been "mute / innocent of grammar as the waves." There, feeling "free," she has had a vision of a woman's face and body. Her breasts gaze at the poet; the poet at her world. Rich writes … ["The Images," WP, 3-5].

"Free of speech" is, of course, a syntactical pun. For the speaker is both free from speech, and, now, free to speak. She comes home, "starving / for images," a body in need of culture. She and her lover, as they remember each other in sleep, will "reassemble re-collect re-member" the lost images of women in the past. They will do the work of Isis, but for Isis, not Osiris. As the culture's images seek to "dismember" them, they will fight the war of the images.

The poem's last lines then recall the picture that the speaker has drawn: a thorn-leaf guarding a purple-tongued flower. Perhaps the picture represents only a flower on a beach. Perhaps not, too. For the thorn leaf can signify the lovers' vigilance in protecting the purple-tongued flower of the vulva, of their sexuality, and of their speech. The thorn is the anger that guards their tenderness, and their poetry.

Language lies. Language invents. Poetry lies. Poetry invents. Rich accepts that "truth." Writing tells stories that matter. Writing gives us images from the mind and of the body, for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind. Rich accepts that "truth" as well. If some words ("lesbian") constrict the throat, say them. Open them up. Only then can we speak enough to wonder seriously if language lies, because it is language; if language invents, because it is language, or if language lies because people are liars who invent to control, rather than to dream. and justly please.


  1. Adrienne Rich, "It Is the Lesbian in Us …," On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, hereafter LSS, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), p. 201.
  2. Helen Vendler, "Ghostlier Demarcations, Keener Sounds," Adrienne Rich's Poetry, ed. Barbara Charles-worth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, hereafter ARP, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Norton Critical Edition, 1975), p. 160. Vendler's essay was originally published in Parnassus, II, 1 (Fall/Winter 1973). As Marjorie Perloff has pointed out to me in conversation, Rich is the only living poet who is the subject of a Norton critical anthology.
  3. In 1975, when ARP appeared, Rich also published Poems Selected and New, 1950-1974, hereafter PSN, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co.). Mark that the first poem is "Storm Warnings", the last "From an Old House in America," which ends, "Any woman's death diminishes me."
  4. Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, hereafter DCL (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), p. 76.
  5. Writing Like a Woman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 121.
  6. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 138-9, expresses this position most sympathetically, in an elegant exegesis of Rich, which discusses the poetics of her lesbian/feminism.
  7. Marjorie Perloff, "Private Lives/Public Images," Michigan Quarterly Review, 22 (January 1983), 132. My essay, "Curing: Some Comments on the Women's Movement and the Avant-Garde," compares Stein and Rich. Manuscript read at the University of Houston, March, 1985, and at the University of California/Irvine, May, 1985, forthcoming in a collection of essays about the avant-garde, edited by Sandy Friedan and Richard Spuler, Munich: Fink (sic).
  8. Adrienne Rich, "'Comment' on Susan Stanford Friedman," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 9, 4 (Summer 1984), 737. Friedman's article, "'I go where I love': An Intertextual Study of H. D. and Adrienne Rich," appeared in Signs, 9, 2 (Winter 1983), 228-245. Elly Bulkin, "'Kissing/Against the Light': A Look at Lesbian Poetry," Lesbian Studies: Present and Future, ed. Margaret Cruikshank (Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press, 1982), 32-54, is a solid survey. For analyses of other genres, see Bonnie Zimmerman, "The Politics of Transliteration: Lesbian Personal Narratives," Signs, 9, 4 (Summer 1984), 663-682, and my "Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English," Critical Inquiry, Special Issue, "Writing and Sexual Difference," ed. Elizabeth Abel, 8, 2 (Winter 1981), 363-379.
  9. See, too, Bulkin, 45-46.
  10. Marilyn R. Farwell, "Adrienne Rich and Organic Feminist Criticism," College English, 39, 2 (October 1977), 191-203, analyzes Rich's literary criticism.
  11. I have adapted this idea from one of the most competent studies of Rich, her development, and relationship to Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson as Puritan American women writers: Wendy Martin, An American Triptych (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 5.
  12. Ostriker, Writing Like A Woman, p. 102.
  13. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, hereafter OWB (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1976), p. 219.
  14. Rich writes of this most fully in "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," hereafter CH, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5, 4 (Summer 1980), 631-660. The founding editor of Signs, I had asked Rich, over a white tablecloth at lunch in a Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York City, if she would be generous enough to contribute. I respected, and feared, her intellectual purity. I hoped she would not find me an academic muddle. Yes, she said, she had an article, about heterosexuality and lesbianism. The essay was one of the most famous Signs published. For extended comment, read "View-point," by Ann Ferguson, Jacquelyn N. Zita, and Kathryn Pyne Addelson, Signs, 7, 1 (Autumn 1981), 158-199.
  15. "Like This Together," The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984, hereafter FD (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984), pp. 62-63.
  16. "This Woman's Movement," ARP, p. 202.
  17. Martin, p. 211.
  18. Alice Echols, "The New Feminism of Yin and Yang," Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 439-459, gives an informed, if not throbbingly sympathetic, account of 1970s cultural feminism. She has published a version in "The Taming of the Id: Feminist Sexual Politics, 1968-1983," Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 50-72. Together, the books represent new directions in the feminist debate about female sexuality in the 1980s, largely toward a theory of female sexuality as a source of pleasure, fantasy, delight. Elizabeth Wilson, "Forbidden Love," Feminist Studies, 10, 2 (Summer 1984), 213-226, is an intriguing English parallel.
  19. "For Ethel Rosenberg," A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, hereafter WP (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1981), p. 29.
  20. Perloff, 136, for one.
  21. Martin, p. 9.
  22. "Split at the Root," Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, ed. Evelyn Torton Beck (Watertown: Persephone Press, 1982), p. 81. Rich notes the extent of her debt to her friendship with Audre Lorde and her life with Michelle Cliff for her understanding of racism, and of "passing."
  23. "Response," Sinister Wisdom 14 (Summer 1980), 104-05. Rich thanks Elly Bulkin, who helped open a public debate in lesbian/feminism about racism and Mary Daly's work.
  24. Adrienne Rich, "Afterword," Take Back the Night, ed. Laura Lederer (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1980), p. 314.
  25. Sources, hereafter S (Woodside, California: The Heyeck Press, 1983).
  26. I suggest that Rich has refined a poetics of anger and tenderness in a line that begins with the two stresses of the spondee, or, occasionally, a trochee, and then relaxes into her controlled, but flexible, iambic feet. Look at the phrase "Anger and tenderness" itself.
  27. "Split at the Root," p. 83. Rich's work is evidence for Alicia Ostriker's typology of women's poetry: "… the quest for autonomous self-definition; the intimate treatment of the body; the release of anger; and … for want of a better name, the contact imperative." The latter craves unity, mutuality, continuity, connection, touch. "The Nerves of a Midwife: Contemporary American Women's Poetry," Parnassus, 6, 1 (Fall/Winter 1977), 73, 82-83.
  28. Albert Gelpi, "Adrienne Rich: The Poetics of Change," ARP, p. 148, persuasively casts Rich as prophet and scapegoat.
  29. "Three Conversations," ARP, p. 112.
  30. "An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich," in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press, 1984), p. 112.
  31. Several critics comment on Rich's clarity, e.g. Martin, p. 169; Suzanne Juhasz, Naked and Fiery Forms, Modern American Poetry by Women: A New Tradition (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976), pp. 178-180, 202. In her memoir of Rich as teacher, a sort of performance, Joyce Greenberg says: "… there was nothing of the actress, nothing of the performer about her." "By Woman Taught," Parnassus, 7, 2 (Spring/Summer 1979), 91.
  32. Joanne Feit Diehl, "'Cartographies of Silence': Rich's Common Language and the Woman Writer," Feminist Studies, 6, 3 (Fall 1980), 545, confronts the issue of Lowell and Rich. My comments about Rich and language owe much to this essay.