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“A Whole New Poetry”

ISSUE:  Summer 1979
The Dream of a Common Language. By Adrienne Rich. Norton. $9.95.

Adrienne Rich began her seventh volume of poems, Diving Into the Wreck (1973), with a quote from George Eliot: “There is no private life which is not determined by a wider public life.” This idea goes a long way toward understanding the direction and impact of Rich’s poetry: toward total awareness of self as product of history. And Adrienne Rich has come a long way from her first published book in 1951. Her earliest poems were decorous exercises; formal, conventional, written for approval by the male poets who were her models. Elegant but preoccupied with craft, her work gradually became more vital, her forms more fluid. In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), disturbing elements in the psyche rose to the surface; she chose open forms, conversational tones, and revealed herself in assertive language instead of distant moralizing. But where the books that followed became increasingly tense and radical and tended to oversimplify political issues, her most recent collection is calmer, more expansive, though it aims at the same revolution.

The voice in Diving was militant, full of visionary anger, but it did not go beyond “self-hatred, a monotone in the mind/The shallowness of a life lived in exile” (“The Phenomenology of Anger”). The latest poems (1974—77) try to bring together the split halves of humanity, to heal the wounds caused by misogynism and male chauvinism. Rich, who has become almost exclusively concerned with the relation between women and patriarchy, defines patriarchy in Of Woman Born (1976; her award-winning study of motherhood as experience and institution) as the power of the fathers, an all-pervasive system in which men determine what part women shall or shall not play. The Dream, however, is less calculated to repudiate men than to provide an imaginative identification with all women. Bolder, more intense and compelling than most contemporary women poets, Rich can now also be tender and generous.

The Dream constantly exposes the damaging man-made chasm between the sexes, the artificial polarization of human characteristics into the false but familiar stereotypes imposed by society. Typically the eternal masculine stereotype implies rationality, objectivity, aggression, domination and manipulation of people and environment, and a separation of man as knower from both woman and nature as objects of knowledge. This male caricature depends, of course, on its opposite, the eternal feminine, which supposedly means emotionalism, passivity, servitude, empathy, and self-sacrifice. What Rich resolves to do is “to refuse these givens”: assumptions about feminine traits, expectations set up by media, advertising, education, a whole process of submerging women in roles believed to be pleasing to males. She refuses “the splitting/between love and action” which has so long characterized and crippled women. In the opening poem, she identifies the source of women’s power as the source of her wounds— though the definition of power is left vague.

The sexes inhabit two different worlds—”the daughters and the mothers/in the kingdom of the sons”—so there is a pressing need for a common language. Since, in making up language to suit men’s needs patriarchal culture thus internalized a fundamentally masculine attutude toward reality, Rich is constantly searching for words that are authentic to her own experience—a subtle and frustrating task, reflected in some poems by halting, fragmented lines. “Truly to liberate women” she says in Of Woman Bom, “means to change thinking itself; to reintegrate what has been named the unconscious, the subjective, the emotional with the structural, the rational, the intellectual. . . . The word “love” is itself in need of revision.” To transcend the myths men have perpetuated about the sexes, women have to confront and identify this enemy within: the masculine subject that reduces the self to object, the other. “In fact we were always like this, /rootless, dismembered: knowing it makes the difference,” she says in “Transcendental Etude.” This concern with language was foreshadowed in The Will to Change, (1971): “This is the oppressor’s language/yet I need it to talk to you.” And in Diving Into the Wreck she committed herself thus: “I am the androgyne/I am the living mind you fail to describe/in your dead language.” Now, in The Dream, she says, “And each/speaker of the so-called common language feels/the ice-floe split, the drift apart/as if powerless, as if up against/a force of nature” (“Cartographies of Silence”).

The imposed dichotomies of man/woman, mind/body, rational/emotional, political/personal, organism/environment, good/evil, active/passive, sane/insane—these are the imagined polarities which harden what is in reality a continuum into antithetical mental images, resulting in alienation. To get beyond habitual dialogue, automatic responses, to change this fragmentation—”the syllables uttering/the old script over and over/The loneliness of the liar/living in the formal network of the lie”—we have to “pull back from the incantations, rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly, /and disenthrall ourselves.” The aim of poetry, then, is “the drive to connect,” and for poet and reader, “no one sleeps in this room without/the dream of a common language.”

Rich addresses herself to the lack of women in written history, so that women have little or no sense of shared heritage. “I fear this silence, /this inarticulate life” she says, and blames her sex for “the failure to want our freedom passionately enough,” for mistaking gentleness for passivity. She admits in earlier books that women have tacitly approved their suppression when it meant a comfortable status quo. And she associates women in The Dream with rockshelf, Stonehenge, mining—and with caged animals, as if women are still in the stone age, about to begin the long climb out of their own inner darkness. Most of the guilt, though, is put squarely on men: “They can rule the world while they can persuade us/ our pain belongs in some order” (“Hunger”). She calls this a “savagely fathered, unmothered world,” and she calls herself “a halfborn woman.” So, in spite of the successes—or publicity, at least—of the women’s movement, sorrow and helplessness remain. There is little sense of victory.

The middle section of the book, “Twenty-One Love Poems,” openly celebrates physical and emotional intimacy with another woman. In these and other poems she explores the way in which women were stolen from their mothers, as Persephone was raped by Hades and deprived of her mother Demeter. (She refers repeatedly to the rites of Eleusis, the ancient Greek ceremony in which Demeter and Persephone are reunited. ) In Of Woman Bom she calls the mutual loss of mother/daughter the essential female tragedy. “The daughters never were/true brides of the father/the daughters were to begin with/brides of the mother/then brides of each other . . . it is unnatural, the homesickness for a woman, for ourselves” she writes in “Sibling Mysteries.” The change in the poet’s attitude toward her own sex is striking: in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” (1963) she projected scorn and spite for even the more intellectual women: “The argument ad feminam, all the old knives/that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours, /ma semblable, ma soeur!”

Rich comprehends sexuality at a level deeper than the division into male/female roles. She puts it simply: “without tenderness, we are in hell.” She defines desire as longing for the symbiotic relationship with the mother, whether in man or woman. According to her view, men have monopolized mother love as if women owed all their nurturing to men in return for protection. Women then grow up conditioned to distrust and compete with other women and to look for romantic love from men as a substitute for mother love missed in childhood. Women must be freed from the destructive myths of romantic love and of selfless, instinctual maternal love—both of which ensure the dominance of men and the isolated, dependent domestication of motherhood.

Women have been alienated from within, divided against themselves, their bodies, and each other. Whether as mothers, daughters, siblings, friends, or lovers, Rich is determined to construct a collective consciousness of women through history. This book includes dramatic monologues on Madame Curie, Elvira Shatayev (Russian mountain climber), and Clara Westhoff (sculptor who married Rilke). The final poem, “Transcendental Etude,” concludes with what seems to be a typical woman quietly caring for small things, raised to an ideal: “Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity, / the striving for greatness, brilliance—only with the musing of a mind/one with her body . . .with no mere will to mastery, / only care for the many-lived, unending/forms in which she finds herself.”

Rich often seems to present women as having purely creative power, men having only destructive power. And her poetry overlooks the question of whether, as Simone de Beauvoir thought, the devaluation of femininity was a necessary step in human evolution. But if man’s phallic, one-sided culture provided for the development of technology which eventually dominated nature so that society could be safe and comfortable in the environment, her point is that male supremacy has led to unnecessary violence and over-control of women and people in general. No one knows what female nature really is, but the image of women emerging from this book casts off role definitions and moves towards androgynous being. Rich shows us the possibility of a world built on a foundation other than conflict and competition—”this still unexcavated hole/called civilization, this half-world.” The voice in this book embodies the qualities of androgyny and humanism it endorses: strong, gentle, compassionate—a voice that ushers in “a whole new poetry beginning here” and does it with grace and dignity.


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