What I know, I know through making poems Passion, Politics and the Body in the Poetry of Adrienne Rich Liz Yorke, Nottingham Trent University, England This paper is largely extracted from my book Adrienne Rich, which is to be published by Sage in October this year… What I have tried to do for the paper is to track one thread explored by the book, which I feel runs through the whole span of Rich"s thought, a thread which links desire, passion, and the body – to politics, to activism, and to the writing of poetry.
Writing poetry, above all, involves a willingness to let the unconscious speak – a willingness to listen within for the whispers that tell of what we know, even though what we know may be unacceptable to us and, sometimes, because we may not want to hear, the whispers may be virtually inaudible. But to write poetry is to listen and watch for significant images, to make audible the inner whisperings, to reach deeper inward for those subtle intuitions, sensings, images, which can be released from the unconscious mind through the creativity of writing.Order now
In this way, a writer may come to know her deeper self, below the surface of the words. Poetry can be a means to access suppressed recognitions, a way to explore difficult understandings which might otherwise be buffeted out of consciousness through the fear-laden processes of repression – through avoidance, denial, forgetting. She identifies here the impulse to politics and protest as emerging from our unconscious desires, a kind of knowing arising within the body which impels us towards action to get our needs met.
When the poem reminds us of our unmet needs it activates our drives, our libido – towards what we long for -whether that is individual, social, communal or global. Rich offers here a basic premise of her thought, that we need to listen within for this language of the body, this way of knowing,. Indeed, our lives depend on such ways of knowing: "our skin is alive with signals; our lives and our deaths are inseparable from the release or blockage of our thinking bodies". In the sixties Richworked hard to create a poetry and a language which would reach out to others, which would allow hera means to release her own passion into language, and so to forge an activist will for radical change:
The will to change begins in the body not in the mind My politics is in my body, accruing and expanding with every act of resistance and each of my failures Locked in the closet at 4 years old I beat the wall with my body that act is in me still2 Rich engages directly with the struggle to release herself from a colonising language, the "so-called common language", – a patriarchal language that utters the old script over and over", an abstracting, dualistic language that splits mind from body and tames and disembodies both poetry and passion -a language that violates the integrity and meanings of its speakers, delegitimates its underprivileged users and disintegrates identity and coherence – whether of individuals, groups, races or whole cultures – the scream of an illegitimate voice It has ceased to hear itself, therefore it asks itself How do I exist?
The transformation of such silences into language and action becomes an underlying theme which becomes more and more compelling, and her poetry gives voice to a deep hungry longing for "moving" words, rather than words which fail to recognise, understand or articulate the meanings of "illegitimate users Let me have this dust, these pale clouds dourly lingering, these words moving with ferocious accuracy like the blind child"s fingers or the new-born infant"s mouth violent with hunger Meditations for a Savage Child Only the embodied word speaks from these depths of primal desire and what she actively apprehends through her senses – a relative, context bound ever-changing truth – is freshly called into being each moment. From the "wildness" of the unblocked, impassioned, embodied word a new perspective may be created, different emphases may be given value, new figures may spring into focus and so the ground shifts.
By the seventies, a commitment to articulating women"s experience will provide feminists with the material ground for political organisation. The refusal to limit political perspectives to those produced within a male-defined culture brings a new focus on women"s bodily specificity: Women"s" lives and experiences are different to men"s, and so women"s" specific, body-based experiential-perceptual fields will also be different. The task for feminism became one of "hearing" women into speech; of returning to the writings of women in history to explore their biologically grounded experience so as to organise politically.
In Of Woman Born, we find Rich pointing to the female body as a crucial resource for an expanding consciousness: of women"s oppression female biology…. has far more radical implications than we have yet come to appreciate. Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons; it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny. In order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies though control is a prerequisite; we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence. This stance was to call forth a chorus of critical condemnation. Elaine Showalter, in her important essay "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness", was to see Rich"s emphasis on "confession" and the body as "cruelly prescriptive. She comments: "there is a sense in which the exhibition of bloody wounds becomes an initiation ritual quite separate and disconnected from critical insight. "4 Back to the body: essentialism and the political task Many saw Rich"s strategy as biologistic and essentialist, and therefore unhelpful to the cause – but how far is writing which explores female specificity to be condemned?
To Hester Eisenstein, "the view of woman as a eternal essence represented a retreat from the fundamentally liberating concept of woman as agent, actor, and subject, rather than object". 5 And yet, as Diana Fuss has suggested, "essentialism can be deployed effectively in the service of both idealist and materialist, progressive and reactionary , mythologising and resistive discourses. "6 The conceptualisation of our own bodies is not some kind of fixed absolute, but rather, is a construct that is being continually reformulated, and whose meanings may, for well or ill, be culturally engendered. The female body is of course always already mediated in and through language.
How we understand our bodies is continually being shaped within the psychical and social meanings circulating in culture, just as our view of ourselves is constructed in relation to specific temporal and geographic contexts. We all may internalise disparaging and harassing myths and messages to our continuing distress. However, "the body" as such is far from being a conception, "beyond the reaches of historical change, immutable and consequently outside the field of political intervention. "7 To take such a view is itself ultimately reductive and deterministic in that it refuses the very possibility of political intervention. In Braidotti"s words: "a feminist woman theoretician who is interested in thinking about sexual differences and the feminine today cannot afford not to be essentialist. quot; Neither can women afford to disembody sexual difference in any project concerned with female subjectivity. As the "threshold of subjectivity" and "the point of intersection, as the interface between the biological and the social", the body is the site or location for the construction of the subject in relation to other subjects.
8 Rich was initially drawn to the body of woman to formulate her strategic response to misogyny with what Braidotti was later to call "the positive project of turning difference into a strength, of affirming its positivity". 9 but was later to withdraw from this trajectory of her thought. I think she could have trusted the intelligence of her earlier political instincts. But lets explore this charge of essentialism more deeply: In Of Woman Born, Rich is clearly not suggesting that women are born to be mothers or that our biology is our destiny – far from it. Being a good mother is most emphatically not a natural, biologically determined given – Rich is at pains to stress that "We learn, often through painful self-discipline and self-cauterization those qualities which are supposed to be innate in us: patience, self-sacrifice, the willingness to repeat endlessly the small, routine chores of socialising a human being". 10 In no sense is any biologically essentialist assumption made that women possess in their natures the qualities of nurturant caring.
In Rich"s thought, as we have seen, it is a quality learned only with difficulty, often at the cost of a serious loss of self:, especially the self of the writer: As she points out: ".. it can be dangerously simplistic to fix upon nurturance as a special strength of women, which need only be released into the larger society to create a new human order. 11 Biology has not endowed women with an essential femininity, there is no biologically given essence that determines that the mother will be a nurturant caregiver, or be virtuous and loving towards her children. To present Rich"s arguments, as Janet Sayers did in her book, Biological Politics, as grounded in "the celebration of female biology and of the essential femininity to which it supposedly gives rise", is to seriously misread her work. 2 Rich"s arguments, rather, imply that the maternal body, as she sees it, is lived: it is bound up in its specificity with the realms of the social and the political and is a crucial site of struggle in which psychoanalytic, sexual, technological, economic, medical, legal, and other cultural institutions contest for power. Sayers addresses her own failure to give due recognition to the importance of psychoanalytic theory in her later book Sexual Contradictions 1986, yet continues to condemn Rich as she does Irigaray for the sin of essentialism and, in so doing, compounds the slippages of her position.
Rich is again criticised for "affirming a particular cultural representation and image of femininity… of woman as a plenitude of sexuality" – which seems to me to miss the point on a grand scale. 3 Sayers reductively dismisses Rich"s breadth, complexity and multidimensionality, in focusing on a fragment of a much larger statement when she states categorically that "women"s supposed complicated, pain-enduring, multipleasured physicality hardly seems a very hopeful basis on which to build resistance to their social subordination… " 14 Well no, it wouldn"t be, if that were actually what Rich was proposing. I turn to a fragment from Integrity, from A Wild Patience to illustrate something of the complexity to be found in the poetry This extract is from "Integrity", collected in A Wild Patience: Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me as angels, not polarities. Anger and tenderness: the spider"s genius to spin and weave in the same action from her own body, anywhere – even from a broken web. 15 In my book I argue how Rich moves beyond dualism in her poetry – an argument I cannot go into – but here "Experience" can be both private and public, personal and political – anger and tenderness, despite being contradictory emotions, need not be mutually exclusive terms. A tension-filled conflict may live and breathe in a woman"s body as different aspects of her experiencing, yet it is integral to the processes and struggles of being female.
Just as the image of the spider spinning and weaving simultaneously suggests the indivisibility of these polar opposites, so too culture and nature, subjectivity and objectivity, social and psychological, body and mind, are inter-implicated with each other – in Rich"s non-dichotomous understanding of the mind / body. These few lines point to a radically subversive process. Identifying herself and other women who fall short of the nurturing ideal woman – Rich transgressively restores to language that which had been silenced and delegitimated within a patriarchal culture and tradition. Her culturally unacceptable anger becomes acknowledged and empathically recognised, rather than condemned. To profoundly accept her own split "selves" and those of other women is to validate and to transform her sensory experiencing, her self-esteem, her sense of her own power, the meaning of her existence.
Women have long been engaged in a vigilant and exacting process of bringing to critical awareness the contradictions, ambiguities and impositions of our diverse experience so as to reach a realm where such incoherences can become rendered conscious and intelligible within language so that they may be thought. This invitation to transform thinking, I would argue, constitutes a very different project to that envisaged by Sayers. From being framed within essentialist injunctions that insist that woman"s nature is to nurture, women may now move from a position of disempowerment and self-castigation towards a greater sense of integrity – a discursive shift has occurred that significantly permits new identifications to be made, different positions to be taken up, new inner and outer perspectives to be considered, and thus a new future may become conceivable, other potentials may be rendered possible.
I want to leave the seventies behind and pick up my argument around the body in a later chapter of the book – during the eighties Rich begins to see the "core of revolutionary process" as "the long struggle against lofty and privileged abstraction", and urges a close focus on materiality, on geographical location and voice. 16 the need to locate the historical and social moment – the context, the precise location in time and space, the "geography" of a particular statement – the "When, where, and under what conditions has the statement been true? ". 17 She brings us back to "the geography closest in – the body" and in so doing, Rich works out her strategy to bring feminist theory "back down to earth again". 8 Theory – the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees – theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn"t smell of the earth, it isn"t good for the earth. 19 In putting her case for a focus on material bodily difference, Rich subtly returns to Lacan"s hardly earthy formula for understanding sexual difference, in theorising her politics of location.
She expands on her earlier attempts to counter the dominance of the phallus through an emphasis on the sexual specificities of the female, but now highlights race as equally important in the construction of identity. 0 Possessing Black or white skin colour assigns "my body" to a particular social status and position within the specific cultural hierarchy North American operating in a specific locality Baltimore. Just as in Lacan, this designation begins in infancy: Even to begin with my body I have to say that from the outset that body had more than one identity. When I was carried out of the hospital into the world, I was viewed and treated as female, but also viewed and treated as white – by both Black and white people. I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex – though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe.
To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognising this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go21 However, not like Lacan, this is accessibly written, Rich"s language always refusing the temptation to soar skywards into elevated theoretical abstraction. In this passage, with its silent, unreferenced echo of Lacanian theory, possessing whiteness and possessing the phallus are directly comparable in the sense that they have been designated a superior position at the centre of the regulatory practices of North American culture.
And so, though it is necessary, it is not enough for feminist theory merely to recognise and affirm the specificities of the femaleness of the body as a countering strategy – skin colour, racial background, cultural and other locational differences all matter, in that they function to differentiate one body from another and to organise diverse bodies towards serving the powerful imperatives of heterosexism, imperialism, post-colonialism, and white male dominance in whatever form it manifests itself. In the course of my book, I try to identify the complexity of these poetic and political strategies in action – the interweaving of that "geography closest in", the history – with the emerging "truths" of dreams, desires, sexualities and subjectivities. For her, it is as important to examine the individual dream life as it is to address the politics, for even the dreamlife is situated within and emerges out of unconscious experience which, of course, also has a history. Inescapably personal but also political, dreams are bound to their historical moment of production.
Being endlessly subject to re-interpretation, they are themselves an interpretation. Rich calls here for the necessity to be vigilant, to be aware that limits, boundaries, borders – whether to feminist theory, to politics, to poetry or to dream – can operate even at this deepest image-making level of the psyche: When my dreams showed signs of becoming politically correct no unruly images escaping beyond borders when walking in the street I found my themes cut out for me knew what I would not report for fear of enemies" usage then I began to wonder. 22 Accountability, responsibility – asking these profound questions – "What is missing here? how am I using this? – becomes part of the creative process". 3 I agree with Rich when she claims that "poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire". 24 If desire itself becomes boundaried within the systems and coercions of corporate capitalism, our power to imagine becomes stultified. If the poet"s "themes" are delimited through the fear of "enemies" usage", and even her role as witness inhibited through fear of comebacks, then the vital role of the revolutionary writer to know words, to use words, to rely on words to imagine and to convey the necessity to create a just, humane society, may be undermined.
As Rich suggests A poem can"t free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have had urged on us, have accepted as our own. It"s not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it"s an instrument for embodied experience. But we seek that experience or recognise it when it is offered to us, because it reminds us in some way of our need. After that rearousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours. 25 "The wick of desire" always projects itself towards a possible future – and, in this revolutionary art "is an alchemy through which waste, greed, brutality, frozen indifference, blind sorrow and anger are transmuted into some drenching recognition of the what if? – the possible. quot;26 However, the knowledge that comes from out of our embodied experience is, in Rich"s work, inextricable from the languages in which it is spoken, thought, imaged, dreamed. It is a theme which recurs and recurs throughout Rich"s work to date – our concrete needs, the passionate urgency of our desires, the intensity of women"s diverse struggles – these are identified and identifiable, just as our differences can be identified and are identifiable as continually in process and are always to be held up to question. Taking nothing for granted, maintaining a continual vigilance against taking anything presumed to be "true" at its face value, Rich constantly questions the premises of her own thought, working critically with the language she uses.
If "language is the site of history"s enactment", then it is also for Rich the site for questioning that history of experience; for evaluating the impositions and alienations that are the outcome of domination; for plumbing the depths and analysing the complexities of what constitutes identity. Throughout these four decades, Rich has found herself interpreting and re-interpreting the contradictory social realities of our lives always critically conscious of the workings of power – not only "possessive, exploitative power" but also "the power to engender, to create, to bring forth fuller life". 27 These are large aims, befitting the work of this major feminist theorist and revolutionary poet.