You Breathe Differently Down Here

The first class I taught adjunct in Michigan was a last minute proposition: the chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies department called me a couple weeks before the start of the fall semester, wondering if I might be interested in teaching a women’s lit class that had unexpectedly become available. She had pulled my CV from a file drawer; when I planned the move to Michigan more than a year earlier, I sent CVs to a number of colleges and universities, hoping to cultivate exactly this sort of adjunct work. I said yes, met for a quick interview, went home with the stack of books that had already been selected and shipped to the bookstore.

Some were familiar from my own undergrad women’s lit classes, though I hadn’t read or thought about them since: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Emma, The Handmaid’s Tale. Others, like Persepolis, I would read for the first time with my students. The class was small, 12 or maybe 15 women, and met one night a week. I was working part time in an elementary after-school program, so when the kids sat down for their last snack, I would go in the bathroom, change from sticky jeans into something “classier,” as the fifth grade girls always said, and then head across town to campus, trying to make the mental shift from pinecone birdfeeders to textual analysis as I drove.

I wanted to start the semester on familiar ground, and since the books had been ordered, poetry seemed like my best option. I photocopied a few poems and handed them out on the first day; Diving Into the Wreck was among those poems. I taught it because I loved the imagery, the mermaid, the knife, the book of myths, loved the way the very tools you need in the depths, the flippers, are crippling on the descent down the ladder, loved the tension between permanence and decay, damage and treasure.  I let the poem stand wide open for my students, who found their own ladders into its depths: what if the wreck is history? What if it’s a university? What if it’s the love of your life?

I also photocopied an essay from What is Found There: “The hermit’s scream.” I wanted my students to read it not just for the content—a powerful exploration of the relationship between poetry, politics, and current events and the meaning of political activism—but also as a model of how to read thoughtfully. Rich is a writer in this essay, of course, but she is also a reader (as she is in most of the essays in this collection), moving deftly between poems by June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Suzanne Gardinier, theory on nonviolence  by Barbara Deming, images from the first Gulf War. The poems are there in their entirety, so my students could see the way her questions rise up from the center and the margins of the text, from the core of the author’s words and what’s left unsaid.

The essay begins with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called “Chemin de Fer”; in it, a solitary person walking along a railroad track hears a hermit fire a shotgun and scream “Love should be put into action!”

Love should be put into action. Rich asks:

“What would it mean to put love into action in the face of lovelessness, abandonment, violation? Where do we find, in or around us, love—the imagination that can subvert despair or the futile firing of a gun? What teaches us to convert lethal anger into steady, serious attention to our own lives and those of others?”

Love should be put into action.

I fell headfirst into women’s studies as an undergrad, read the books and theories and poems my professors assigned hungrily, protested, rallied, lit candles at vigils, sat up late at night in dorm rooms listening to bootleg tapes of early Ani diFranco with women, friends, roommates, sometimes strangers, our lives suddenly, certainly, intertwined . The Women’s Studies faculty at my tiny liberal arts college were, and are, thoughtfully, unapologetically, radical. When I teach Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” now my students are quick to critique it as essentialist and hesitant to embrace any connection between women’s intimacy and lesbian identity, but when I read it as an undergrad, I identified immediately with the way Rich places women at the center of women’s lives.

Love should be put into action. “I continue to hear the dirty hermit’s scream and to want it to become a general cry,” Rich writes.

And if there is a line that connects those first feminist awakenings in dorm rooms and classrooms, to the theory I parsed first with difficulty then with ease in grad school, to my teaching, to my mothering, Rich and the hermit articulate it better than I ever could. Love should be put into action.

A couple of nights ago, when I heard, via Facebook, of Rich’s passing, I pulled out The Fact of a Doorframe and read late into the night, and when my almost 5 year old saw it lying on the couch the next morning she asked me to read her a poem. I read her a few lines from Diving Into the Wreck, hesitant to offer her the more frightening or intense images, and she asked, “What does she mean, she breathes differently? Is she a scuba diver or a mermaid?”

She was both, I said. Sometimes, you have to be both.

4 responses to “You Breathe Differently Down Here

  1. This is so great. Gah, why didn’t I read Rich with a bunch of awesome women??

  2. beautiful.

  3. I don’t think I’ve told you yet how much I am loving this blog. It’s taking me back to those undergrad days except that we didn’t talk about babies and kids as much. This is making both my brain and my heart happier.

    • I’m so glad you’re reading! You should totally join us for a guest chat some week and you can talk about raising boys, since both Lauren and I have girls.

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