Sunday, 1 April 2012

Life's Rich Pageant: a journey through the poetry of Adrienne Rich.

When a poet begins writing critically acclaimed poems at the tender age of twenty, and keeps to her craft writing continually for a lifetime, there is vast collection of poems left behind to ponder and enjoy.  Adrienne Rich, poet and essayist, died earlier this week, and although she was eighty-two years old, I was still shocked by her passing.  It seems we assume the great artists amongst us, who are so clever and insightful, can somehow cheat death.
Of all the poet's I have studied, Rich is the most mercurial.  Indeed, she seems to be the Scarlet Pimpernel of the poet world, a title I think she would have enjoyed, being so elusive and ever changing in her style of writing and themes.  It seems that just as we feel we can glimpse her between the lines, or in a phrase, she disappears again and is gone.  It is not for nothing that the theme of identity and the motif of masks recur in her work.
And so I have come to journey back into the past, to consider some of the poems of Adrienne Rich, that in themselves, trace the journey of a lifetime, from young novice to acclaimed and respected

One cannot consider the work of Adrienne Rich without considering power and gender.  
These are the themes that she is most commonly associated with.  Yet, even here, the elusive Rich is not so easily pinned-down,as she considers gender inequality from many angles.

In one of her earliest poems, 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers', we are presented with the image of a woman so subservient to the will of her husband that the very wedding band that symbolises their marriage, is like a dead weight to which she is tethered:
'The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.'
It is interesting that the woman of the poem's title is busy embroidering 'a screen', which in itself is an object that one often conceals and disguises.  Yet, the subject of the tapestry reveals the ardent spirit of Aunt Jennifer: she embroiders fearless tigers, who 'do not fear the men', but prance 'proud and unafraid'.  It seems Aunt Jennifer has a secret life.  Here is the act of rebellion that is so surprising in this very traditionally-structured poem.  Rich seems to be commenting of the power of art and the artist, to challenge the status quo in society.  In her small way, Aunt Jennifer is attacking the very power structures of society which suppress her: the right of a husband to control and dominate his wife.  

Aunt Jennifer seems like a woman from a bygone age, most probably because of the antiquated act of embroidering a screen. Yet, the anti-marriage theme of this poem suggests its modern provenance and gives us just a hint of Rich's feelings about the inequitable distribution of power in society in general and between men and women in particular.
In 'Living In Sin', Rich takes away the wedding band, and considers the relationship between a modern, liberated couple living together without the obligation of legal marriage-contracts.  The poems deal with the startling realisation by the woman in the poem, that love has a practical side and that living with a man, involves taking on various duties that society expects a woman to undertake; such as the dusting, the cooking and the 'home-making'.  Even when no marriage occurs, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that the female in the relationship will act as domestic, and see that 'there is no dust upon the furniture of love'.
The woman in this poem is not a natural home-maker, letting 'the coffee pot boil over', serving cheese and wine for supper instead of a proper meal, and 'finding a towel to dust the table-top'.  She does not seem to have the tools for the job.  Yet even she is 'jeered by minor demons' in her head and urged to keep cleaning, to be a good 'house-wife' and do what is expected of her.
And here is the central idea in this poem: society seems to have pre-programmed her behaviour, expectations and way of thinking.   Simply 'living' with a man automatically dictates that the female is subservient to the male and the inequality of the relationship is engrained deeply in society and, even more worryingly, in our own heads.  Rich seems to be a woman who has deep concerns about gender inequality and the reader wonders how happy she was as the wife of a successful academic, the mother of three boys.

Although she does not wear her heart on her sleeve so much as, say, Sylvia Plath, it is possible to read between the lines and know that Rich is trying to make sense of the world she is living in.  Where Plath is all emotion and sensibility, Rich is more analytical and militant.  She is prepared to remove feeling, forget about sentiment and nostalgic romance, and to focus on the facts.  

By 1961, Rich had come to a decision.  In her poem 'The Roofwalker' she asks the vital question: 'Was it worth it to lay... a roof I can't live under?'  It is as if the girl from 'Living in Sin' has come to a final decision too.  She may be about to 'break (her) neck', but she has to do it anyway.  The key image in this poem is that of men building houses, silhouetted against the sky.  But these are unfinished houses, places not fit for human habitation.  They walk dangerously along the rooftops and Rich feels akin to these men: 'I feel like them up there: exposed...I am naked, ignorant, a naked man fleeing across the roofs'.  Here, in a telling choice of words, Rich wishes she were a man, something other than a woman.  Yet, I do not think that is is her femaleness that she wants to get rid of, but the social expectations that come along with being a woman.  She says, 'even my tools are the wrong ones for what I have to do.'  She can no longer live as a woman in the way that society wants her to.  Regardless that she may get hurt, may break her head and fall, this is something that the speaker must do: she must escape, she must flee.
I cannot help but smile to think that the speaker is in some way connected to Aunt Jennifer, and the young woman in 'Living in Sin', and rejoice that Rich's poetic voice can now declare that she has had enough and is leaving 'a roof I can't live under'.  As such, 'The Roofwalker' is a vital poem in understanding the working of Rich's mind.  In it we can capture a glimpse of the poet as she moves into a new phase of her writing and her life.

And does Rich break her neck?  Well, perhaps not, but she certainly suffers greatly, if the 1969 poem 'Our Whole Life' is anything to go by.  The poem is so full of pain that it is palpable: 'it hurts... burning... a cloud of pain... no words for this...'  Rich expresses her agony through the horrific image of a man on fire: 'The Algerian... burning'.  It is interesting that she again opts to write of her pain in male terms, describing it as a man.  Is it a random choice?  I think not.  The irony is that while she is railing against the power that men have over women in society, her central characters are often male: the uncle who speaks in the drawing room, the roof walker, the Algerian man on fire.  Perhaps Rich felt that she was akin to these men or that, as a poet, her imagination was not and should not be limited to any particular gender.  At least there, in her mind, she could be any gender she liked.
However, by the time Rich came to write 'Trying to Talk with A Man', in 1971, she was separated from her husband and then widowed.  Freed from her unhappy role as wife, Rich speaks with a liberated, clear female voice.  In this poem the speaker has comes out into the desert to break up with her male partner.  They have been together a long time and have collected a lifetime of memories: 'whole LP collections, films... Jewish cookies... love letters... suicide notes, afternoons on the riverbank pretending...'.
But for the speaker, the loudest thing of all is the 'silence' that they have brought with them.  It seems that he does much of the talking, but to her it 'feels like power' and his eyes 'reflect lights that spell out: Exit'. The origin of the Exit sign is ambiguous here:  she could see it in his eyes, or his eyes could be reflecting back what is in her eyes.  Either way, it is the end of their relationship and again I think of the unhappy non-bride in 'Living in Sin', and consider, with some relief, that they have finally decided to part ways.
And this leads me to reflect, how little love features in this collection of Rich's poems, selected for the Leaving Certificate Syllabus.  Nowhere do we feel that she is loved or loves in return.  This lack of emotional connection with the characters in her poems prevents us from grieving at the break up in 'Trying to Talk with A Man' as we feel that little has been lost and there is even less to regret.  Perhaps this is due to the analytical way that the poet goes about dissecting her relationships.  Of course, Rich was capable of writing very beautiful love poems and in 1976 when she began a relationship with writer Michelle Cliff, she wrote a whole collection of love poems celebrating lesbian love.  In one very sensuous, evocative verse she wrote:  

"Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine – tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun."

Prior to that, in 1972, Rich wrote her famed poem, 'Diving in to the Wreck', in which she describes the experience of going deep-sea diving.  Here, Rich uses metaphor to describe the experience of going beyond gender, beyond the norms dictated by society, literature and culture, to a world where words like 'male' and 'female' no longer hold any sway:
 I am she: I am he ... the mermaid... the merman...We are, I am, you are... the one who find our way...'.
Rich tries to erase all gender difference and creates a landscape where androgyny is possible.  Her clever use of myth here, which she usually finds so loaded with gender inequality, enables us to enter an imaginative space, alive with mermaids and mermen.  It is a small step from this, to imagine a world devoid of gender and all the preconceptions that that entails.  The thing of genius in this poem, for me, is the use of the element of water itself.  It acts as some kind of vortex, where time stands still and is warped into some new dimension.  The image of 'the mermaid whose dark hair streams back', captures the slowed-down tempo of life beneath the water.  Here, 'you breath differently... I have to learn... to turn my body without force in the deep...'.  Rich creates a different world, beyond what we all know, beyond gender.  This is a complete antidote to 'Trying to Talk with a Man', where the landscape is an arid, dry desert, with its 'deformed cliffs'. The only source of water being the 'underground water' that the speaker sometimes feels.  

Both of these poems compliment each other so well because they use their strange landscapes to mirror the poet's theme of gender and power; one showing how relationships can dry you up and suck all the life blood out of you; the other showing how wonderful and refreshingly free the world would be without gender differentiation.  Of course, Rich later concluded that androgyny was not the solution to the age long problems of gender inequality.  For why should women have to give up their femaleness just to have access to power?  Surely we had enough of that with Margaret Thatcher.  But that is what we expect from Adrienne Rich, who was not afraid to contradict earlier statements and was constantly revising and changing her opinions and points of view.    

It seems extra-poignant that a poet who has travelled so far in terms of her poetic style and themes, should finally have come to the end of her journey, in life, as well as in poetry.  And so we go back to the beginning, to 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers' and take solace in the fact that, like the tigers on the tapestry screen, for Adrienne Rich, her poetry will be her eternal legacy and 'will go on prancing, unafraid'.

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