The Voice in Adrienne Rich’s Proesy has its origins within the thorny thicket of family dramas, time only increasing the bitterness of the recollections. “That dangerous place the family home,” says the writer in Sources, “There are verbal brutalities borne thereafter like any burn or scar/ there are words pulled down from the walls like dogwhips.” Another fond recollection is her description of the family from In The Wake Of Home: “The family coil so twisted, tight and loose/ anyone trying to leave / has to strafe the field/ burn the premises down.”
Projecting this dissatisfaction with family out upon the larger world, the author writes in From An Old House In America that we are thrust from the womb into a “savagely fathered and unmothered world.” It is worth noting here the subtlety of the gender distinction: the father’s sin is action: the savagery of the masculine; the mother’s sin is inaction: the passivity of feminine. This gender distinction will come up again in Rich’s work: the masculine’s active savagery, the feminine’s enabling passivity.
[for more on Rich’s rebellion against (mostly male) savagery and repression, see: The Rebel Yell Of Adrienne Rich]
In Twenty-One Love Poems, we read of the anger of daughter toward mother because the mother has accepted the role of family martyr: “Well, that’s finished. The woman who cherished/ her suffering is dead. I am her descendant. / I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me, / but I want to go on from here with you / fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.”
The disparagement of the choice for Victimhood will also come up again in Rich’s work.
There is even less forgiveness for the father. In Sources, the resentment against the father figure is palpable:
“For years I struggled with you: your categories, your theories, your will, the cruelty which came inextricable from your love. For years all arguments I carried on in my head were with you. I saw myself, the eldest daughter raised as a son, taught to study but not to pray, taught to hold reading and writing sacred: the eldest daughter in a house with no son, she who must overthrow the father, take what he taught her and use it against him.”
The issues with the father become entwined with dissatisfactions with patriarchal society:
“After your death I met you again as the face of patriarchy, could name at last precisely the principle you embodied, there was an idealogy at last which let me dispose of you, identify the suffering you caused hate you righteously as part of a system, the kindgom of the fathers. I saw the power and arrogance of the male as your true watermark.”
Marriage, no surprise, is an unhappy, unfulfilling experience for the Voice: “Pieces of the universe are missing,” she says in A Marriage In The Sixties, “I feel the gears of this late afternoon/ slip, cog by cog.” She says that marriage is the hope that “two strangers, thrust for life upon a rock,/ may have at last the perfect hour of talk/ that language aches for; still– / two minds, two messages.” However, the distance between the “two minds” will eventually prove uncrossable.
Feeling more and more trapped and confined on her island of orthodoxy, we hear in The Burning Of Paper Instead Of Children, that “my mouth is burning, I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.” Thus, we see that a new writer is being birthed, one who will , from now on, view the world in the light of a violent contest between Oppressor and Oppressed.
Casting off from both marriage and her discontent-filled island of orthodoxy, she knows the price to be paid and the threat she is unleashing. “Such women are dangerous to the order of things,” she says in From An Old House In America.
Later, speaking in From A Survivor, we learn that whatever strength or mystique she had once assigned to the male form has evaporated: “it is no longer/ the body of a god/ or anything with power over my life.” She describes the journey of her self-discovery as, “not as a leap/ but a succession of brief, amazing moments/ each one making possible the next.”
Casting her gaze over history, the Voice in Rich’s Proesy laments, in Twenty-One Love Poems, the women who have been wasted and misused by history:
“Artists dying in childbirth, wise-women charred at the stake centuries of books unwritten piled behind these shelves; and we still have to stare into the absence of men who would now, women who could not, speak to our life—this still unexcavated holed called civilization, this act of translation, this half-world.”
Though compassion must almost certainly underflow the all the unleashed fury, the Voice more often cries-out with rebellion and resentment than speaks with expressions of love. It is as if the heart has been carved out, leaving only Care’s sharp and bitter husk: Anger.
Realizes this about herself, the author says (to herself) in Contradictions: Tracking Poems: “Grief for you has rebellion at its heart/ it cannot simply mourn.” She speaks in Twenty-One Love Poems of “my incurable anger” and of her “unmendable wounds.”
The Voice rages against the violence of men, and at their subjugation and objectification of women. By the time she writes The Phenomenology Of Hatred, men have become “the enemy:”
“When I dream of meeting/ the enemy, this is my dream/ white acetylene/ ripples from my body/ effortlessly released/ perfectly trained/ on the true enemy// raking his body down to the thread/ of existence/ burning away his lie/ leaving him in a new/ world; a changed/ man.”
The anger and resentment is so hot and overwhelming that crimes against the female are seen everywhere, as when, in Turning The Wheel, even the Grand Canyon becomes a symbol of the transgression of the female: “I am travelling to the edge to meet the face/ of annihilating and impersonal time/ stained in the colors of a woman’s genitals/ outlasting every transient violation.”
When an apparently sympathetic male gently pushes back at being automatically condemned due only to his gender, the Voice, ever unforgiving, refuses to concede:
“But can’t you see me as a human being/ he said// What is a human being/ she said// I try to understand/ he said// what will you undertake/ she said// will you punish me for history/ he said// what will you undertake/ she said// do you believe in collective guilt/ he said// let me look in your eyes/ she said.”
Although Rich’s work is full of sympathy for the downtrodden, the Voice sometimes chastises those, like the mother, who fall into the trap of passive Victimhood:
From Twenty-One Love Poems: “If I cling to circumstance I could feel/ not responsible. Only she who says/ she did not choose, is the loser in the end.”
And in Sources she says that the “despised and endangered” should have faith that “they are not merely the sum of damages done to them.”
“Try telling yourself you are not accountable to the life of your tribe, the breath of your planet,” she says in North American Time
In Yom Kippur 1984, she has some advice for those who would join her in her fight against the oppressors:
“Find someone like yourself. Find others. / Agree you will never desert each other./ Understand that any rift among you/ means power to those who want to do you in./ Close to the center, safety; toward the edges, danger.”
She says, in Sources, that it is better to look within for strength, not without, for easy fixes: “I refuse to become a seeker for cures. / Everything that has ever/ helped me has come through what already / lay stored in me.”
In the midst of battle, our poet-warrior feels the loneliness of the hero: “No person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be so alone,” she complains in Sources, continuing:
“There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors. (I make up this strange, angry packet for you, threaded with love.) I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, and perhaps there is none now; but we will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history, if we are not to give ourselves away.”
In A MARRIAGE IN THE SIXTIES she speaks of longing, of the need for camaraderie in the struggle: “Today we stalk/ in the raging desert of our thought/ whose single drop of mercy is / each knows the other there.”
Some of the loneliness is abated by, and some of that longed-for camaraderie is found in, the arms of other women. Although the Voice in Adrienne Rich’s poetry condemns the male’s lust for the female, it celebrates lesbian lust.
Talking of man’s lustful ways in From An Old House In America, she writes: “It was lust that had defined us— their lust and fear of our deep places/ we have done our time as faceless torsos licked by fire.”
In another work, Twenty-One Love Poems, the sheer persuasiveness of female objectification is bemoaned:
“Wherever in this city, screens flicker/ with pornography, with science fiction vampires,/ victimized hirelings bending to the lash,/ we also have to walk… if simply as we walk/ through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties/ of our own neighborhoods.”
In Reforming The Crystal, she describes man’s hunger for the female as “desire centered in a cock focused like a burning glass” and says that men “want a woman like a fix.”
On the other hand, in Twenty-One Love Poems (in a section called “The Floating Poem”) the Voice celebrates the physical desire of the female for the female:
“Whatever happens with us, your body/ will haunt mine– tender, delicate/ your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond/ of the fiddlehead fern in the forests/ just washed by the sun. Your traveled, generous thighs/ between which my whole face has come and come– / the innocence of wisdom of the place my tongue has found there/ the live insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth– / your touch on me, firm, protective, searching/ me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers/ reaching where I had been waiting years for you/ in my rose-wet cave– whatever happens, this is.”
In Contradictions, she writes: “My mouth hovers across your breasts/ in the short grey winter afternoon/ in this bed we are delicate/ and tough so hot with joy we amaze ourselves.”
But there are also deeper needs at work than those of the flesh. In Transcendental Etude, a homesickness for Self is juxtaposed with the homosexual impulse:
“The homesickness for a woman, for ourselves,/ for that acute joy at the shadow her head and arms/ case on a wall, her heavy or slender/ thighs on which we lay, flesh against flesh,/ eyes steady on the face of love; smell of her milk, her sweat,/ terror of her disappearance, all fused in this hunger/ for the element they have called most dangerous, to be/ lifted breathtaken on her breast, to rock within her/ — even if beaten back, stranded again, to apprehend/ in a sudden brine-clear thought/ trembling like the tiny, orbed, endangered/ egg-sac of a new-world: / This is what she was to me, and this/ i show I can love myself– / as only a woman can love me. // homesick for myself, for her”
In the same work we read how “birth stripped our birthright from us, / tore us from a woman, from women, from ourselves”—a rending partially mended in homosexual embrace when, “I am the lover and the loved, / home and wanderer.”
“I want to crawl into her for refuge,” says the Voice in Splittings, “lay my head/ in the space between her breast and shoulder/ abnegating power for love/ as women have done or hiding/ from power in her love like a man/ I refuse these givens the splitting/ between love and action I am choosing / not to suffer uselessly and not to use her/ I choose to love this time for once/ with all my intelligence.”
“The only real love I have ever felt/ was for children and other women,” she admits in The Phenomenology of Hatred. “Everything else was lust, pity, / self-hatred, pity, lust./ This is a woman’s confession.”
More from Hammering Shield on Adrienne Rich: