Poetry with teeth: Rest in Power Adrienne Rich

I love the political freedom poetry and art can provide. The ways it can function as theory inspiring and invoking us to act. This should be its primary use. I never could understand ‘art for art’s sake’. I don’t understand what that statement means, because it is not my reality. And theory that fails to change our reality is a waste of my time, and time is what I don’t have thanks to our ‘illustrious’ oppressors that rob us of it. When we look to the people’s history, and the development of humanity across time we see societies destroyed and rebuilt through cycles of struggles. As people act against their conditions they are not only changing the structures of society, but also themselves in the process. Art and culture have an important relationship to this revolutionary process. Art, as a part of culture, influences people’s consciousness, and consciousness guides our actions. Artist warriors have always inspired me; nurtured and affirmed my thoughts about this world and helped me express them through various forms. One artist and thinker, who has inspired me as a revolutionary/feminist/ artist is womyn warrior poet Adrienne Rich, whose life and work is the subject of this post.

During reflective times I find myself turning to Adrienne’s work. The way she always speaks from her own experiences but within the context of something larger than herself, such as oppression, is what resonates with me. Her approach to writing, whether it be theory or poetry, is always concise and grounded in the righteousness of her own truth. It is confrontational. She is not writing to just analyze herself or the world; she is questioning it; envisioning something different. Interacting with her work compels you to do the same. This is where the power of her work lies; not just in the naming of our truth, but the carrying of it in practice. Art is a revolutionary practice.  Adrienne Rich embodied many of these values in her work and in her life. When reading her bio recently I stumbled across this quote from 1997 when she refused the National Medal of Arts,

“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” She went on to say: “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

Poetic. Truthful. Revolutionary. “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” This is a deep and powerful truth. We need art that can fight. Art that speaks to the enslavement of the people under this global patriarchal white-supremacist capitalist system. Art that strengthens the power of the ruling class over our lives is shallow and means nothing as Adrienne says. Her writing is also excellent and poetic in it’s form and content. I like the arrangement of the words and the skillful way she incorporates metaphor in the themes and visuals of her pieces.

Rich spoke of lesbianism, race, and gender in a way that did not disconnect it from the imperialist world we live under. Second wave feminism, and it’s lacking of race and class analysis, often had the privilege of naming and defining feminism and patriarchy in a way that continued to erase the subjectivity of a lot of us, mainly, working-class/queer/womyn of color. This had a direct influence on the development of third-world feminism. Although Rich comes from a middle-class, European background, her consciousness transcended bourgeois conditioning and privilege. Rich understood the multiple of layers of self; and the way these layers are divided from one another and regulated by the system. Radical third world feminism has always been grounded in a reclaiming of self through understanding the intersections of our identity and how it relates to our total oppression. I believe the only way to get whole is through struggle to fundamentally change the system we live in so that it no longer harms and divides our mind, body and spirit. These ideas have not always existed in our social movements though. We are indebted to Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur, and the womyn warriors before us, who helped name our truths and validate our realities. Adrienne Rich’s book of poetry Dream of A Common Language is personally very important to me, because of the openness of lesbian desire and relationships running throughout it. In a world that supports male power, womyn community, partnership, and comradeship is not suppose to exist. This helps enforce the alienation that is real and material. Rich’s work confronts this power within her work, drawing out and affirming what is often forced into hiding under these oppressive conditions.

“We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”

The overcoming of alienation is so important in developing a revolutionary movement that is grounded and sustainable. We must learn how to come together on a healthy basis, and overcome the material divisions that the ruling class imposes on us. We must come together so that we can direct our power against the ruling class and rebuild society. Sometimes the emphasis on coming together and breaking out of isolation, becomes the main political strategy and fails to become revolutionary. Breaking out of the alienation is not the final goal, but it is a necessary part of our political praxis.

The poem below, Hunger (For Audre Lorde), comes from Dream of A Common Language. It captures, in poetic form, the particular suffering and oppression that is a product of capitalism, and the particular way that women experience it, as mothers, as queers, as sex workers, as colonized women. Hunger; starvation; we struggle for the basic necessities of life and that is not a way to live. As womyn, especially working class/womyn of color, our particular place in the division of labor, as mothers and wives, (a role that all women are trained to accept regardless if your queer or not), leaves many women and their families in a precarious state. When budget cuts defund daycare and after school programs, it is often the women, who must worry over who is going to watch their children when they are at work. It is often the womyn who must figure out how to pay the water and gas bill every month so they can have running water and heat in the home. It is often the womyn, who must figure out how to provide nourishment for themselves and family when the food prices keep going up while the paycheck rate stays the same. We are expected to tie up the loose ends, and we have been making a dollar out of 15 cents for centuries now.

I post this piece with honor and respect to Adrienne Rich, whose conscious body has left this world, but whose spirit lives on in our own.

May 16th 1929-March 27th 2012

Hunger (For Audre Lorde)

1.

A fogged hill-scene on an enormous continent,

intimacy rigged with terrors,

a sequence of blurs the Chinese painter’s ink-stick planned,

a scene of desolation comforted

by two human figures recklessly exposed,

leaning together in a sticklike boat

in the foreground. Maybe we look like this,

I don’t know. I’m wondering

whether we even have what we think we have–

lighted windows signifying shelter,

a film of domesticity

over fragile roofs. I know I’m partly somewhere else–

huts strung across a drought-stretched land

not mine, dried breasts, mine and not mine, a mother

watching my children shrink with hunger.

I live in my Western skin,

my western vision, torn

and flung to what I can’t control or even fathom.

Quantify suffering, you could rule the world.

2.

They can rule the world while they can persuade us

our pain belongs in some order

Is death by famine worse than death by suicide,

than a life of famine and suicide, if a black lesbian dies,

if a white prostitute dies, if a woman genius

starves herself to death to feed others,

self-hatred battening on her body?

Something that kills us or leaves us half-alive

is raging under the name of an “act of god”

in Chad, in Niger, in the Upper Volta–

yes, that male god that acts on us and our children,

that male State that acts on us and our children

till our brains are blunted by malnutrition,

yet sharpened by the passion of our survival,

our powers expended daily on the struggle

to hand a kind of life on to our children,

to change reality for our lovers

even in a single trembling drop of water.

3.

We can look at each other through both our lifetimes

like those two figures in the sticklike boat

flung together in the Chinese ink-scene

even our intimacies rigged with terror.

Quantify suffering? My guilt at least is open,

I stand convicted by all my convictions–

you, too. We shrink from touching

our power, we shrink away, we starve ourselves

and each other, we’re scared shitless

of what it could be to take and use our love,

hose it on a city, on a world,

to wield and guide its spray, destroying

poisons, parasites, rats, viruses–

like the terrible mothers we long and dread to be.

4.

The decisions to feed the world

is the real decision. No revolution

has chosen it. For that choice requires

that women shall be free.

I choke on the taste of bread in North America

but the taste of hunger in North America

is poisoning me. Yes, I’m alive to write these words,

to leaf through Kollwitz’s women

huddling the stricken children into their stricken arms

the “mothers” drained of milk, the “survivors” driven

to self-abortion, self-starvation, to a vision

bitter, concrete, and wordless.

I’m alive to want more than life,

want it for others starving and unborn,

to name the deprivations boring

into my will, my affections, into the brains

of daughters, sisters, lovers caught in the crossfire

of terrorists of mind.

In the black mirror of the subway window

hangs my own face, hollow with anger and desire.

Swathed in exhaustion, on the trampled newsprint,

a woman shields a dead child from the camera.

The passion to be inscribes her body.

Until we find each other, we are alone.

1974-1975



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