Saturday, April 28, 2012

National Poetry Month—Adrienne Rich "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve"

Adrienne Rich died right before the beginning of National Poetry Month. I posted a lengthy profile then.  No need to repeat it so soon.  If you did not see it, click here.  But certainly Rich was such an influential modern poet that she deserves another look in this series.

When Rich died, she was almost universally lauded in glowing obituaries and reflections by those whose lives she had touched and encouraged.  Almost, but not quite.  A lot of transgender folks were mad and some of them not ready to forgive.

One blogger wrote that she could not mourn her “oppressor.”  Rich, it seems, was vocally against transgender people, most especially those whose birth identity was male.  Her biggest offense was offering advice and encouragement—and a lengthy interview—to Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire.  The book attacked men who attempted to become women by “self-castration” as virtual masculine moles posing as women.  The language of the book, as a whole, although not necessarily the quotes from Rich, was harsh and the conclusion was that transgender women should not be allowed to exist.

The book attracted a small audience, but it would be cited by those who campaigned to deny insurance coverage and medical care to people in transition.  And, although Rich did not dwell on the subject, she never publicly renounced or distanced herself from the book or its conclusions.

Now I literally do not have a dog in this fight and tread here carefully and with considerable trepidation.  It looks to me like Rich, who was born in 1928, despite a lifetime of political and sexual radicalism and becoming a leading theoretical voice for lesbian feminism, was in the end never able to overcome one last great cultural taboo.  Too bad for her.  Too bad for those she hurt.

She was also not the only lesbian feminist that held this view, particularly in the early ‘70’s when some in the movement were going through a radical separatist phase. They were not willing to give men, in any form, any slack.  All were oppressors. All were rapists either in deed or by benefiting from the fear planted in women by those who did the deed. Folks who lived through those times remember some of the rhetoric.  Vengeance fantasy calls for castration.  Urging that male children should be rejected and abandoned.  Transgender women, being in their minds still men, were as guilty as any other. 
This was a minority, but a noisy one, within the movement.  Perhaps it was necessary and cathartic.  But within a very few years, most of the women who held these positions moved on.  They did not soften, but accepted greater nuance.  But as another blogger observed, strains of “trans hatred in radical feminism linger.  

Rich, like all of us, had a complicated life full of contradictions.  She was not a feminist saint.  And she was not the devil.  She needs to be judged on what she did, wrote, and said.  All of it, good and bad.  But it would be a tragedy not to treasure the good because we disapprove of the bad.
Today’s poem touches on none of this.  Rather it is intensely more personal. 

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid

later spread
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping

Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb    disgraced    goes on doing

now diagram the sentence

—Adrienne Rich

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