Tag Archives: Adrienne Rich

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.

Reading Adrienne Rich in Oklahoma with a bunch of boys

Reading Adrienne Rich was such an incendiary experience for me that I actually contemplated burning my copy of Diving Into The Wreck when we were finished with it. My friend/roommate/fellow-English-major-cum-feminist was aghast, and I realized she was right. So, my copy of Diving remained intact, though I don’t know where it is anymore. 

My sophomore year in college was epic. I was coming off a fatally fucked up relationship and had decided to do everything different that year. I walked over a mile to school on the first day of that fall semester and surfed into class on an endorphin high. I’d decided to join the women’s rugby team and be social with someone other than my former boyfriend, who’d fled the confines of our relationship to the snowy north. We read Diving Into the Wreck in Mr. Frank’s 2313 course in the English Department at the University of Oklahoma: the first required course for English majors, which schooled us in close reading analysis. It was a room full of college sophomores from a red state – I mean a deep red state; our school color was crimson – who’d idly thought we’d like to continue talking about Wordsworth and Shakespeare rather than train as accountants or engineers. We’d checked a box next to English as our major and declared war with ourselves, unknowingly, because Frank was a bit of a gatekeeper. He insisted that English majors question everything, and do so with perfect grammar. The class was full of boys, and we crammed into a seminar room the size of a tinder box: a handful of us brave enough to sit around the oak table where Frank sat at the head, the rest of the group ringing us in desks shoved against the wall, stacked in the corner.

He broke us in with Hemingway’s short stories. Each week, we wrote an intensive close reading analysis: papers that were two or three pages long, single spaced, which Frank returned covered in meticulous corrections and commentary in blue ink. He’d select one or two to read aloud as examples. We learned about synecdoche and metonymy and to never, ever “violate the chronology” of a text. He chastened me for depending too much on the dash for emphasis; when I switched to semi-colons, he advised me to actually learn how to use them before abusing them. On a friend’s essay, he drew a line under the third paragraph and next to it he wrote, “I stopped reading here.” So before we even got to Rich’s mindblowing stuff, we were poised unsteadily; shaken. Because, we’d thought we were really smart and this would be fine, and we were wrong. We had a lot to learn and a long way to go. Some people saw this as an occasion to dig in and get serious; some started seeing Frank as the devil incarnate. For me, Frank was hands down, the best teacher I had in college: the smartest, craziest, most intense, and most desperate that we actually learn. The guy was basically losing his mind trying to get a bunch of idiots to think critically. He fought the good fight, sometimes putting his purple plastic coin purse on his head to diffuse tension; sometimes pounding his fist on the table, his face red and eyes ablaze, just pissed at us.

This is supposed to be about Adrienne Rich, and it is. We read Diving into the Wreck next. I hung out with a bunch of guys in that class. We were supposed to be friends, or a study group, or something, but mostly we got together and complained about Frank’s class. Initially, we agreed he was a genius, but as the semester wore on, there was less consensus on anything beyond the certainty that he was going to have a breakdown. I was a naïve co-ed and knew nothing about feminism – real feminism, anyway – until I read Adrienne Rich. Starting my feminist education with Rich was baptism by fire: her work is polemical, striking at the foundations of cultural institutions like marriage and motherhood. I don’t remember her WORDS so much as her IDEAS, although rereading “Diving Into the Wreck” I remember spending hours trying to make sense of the knife, the camera, the book of myths; “I go down.”

Reading Rich in a closeknit group of men with something to prove was, ya know, REALLY WEIRD. I was thrilled to be one of the guys, thrilled to drink Minnesota Spew out of cans and smoke clove cigarettes on the porch, talking about poetry and cinema with other smart people. God, I’d been waiting my whole life for that. But it was uncomfortable. The more we dug into Rich’s radical concepts of gender as social construct, of women as powerful, of society as essentially, profoundly sexist, the more I turned the mirror to myself and asked unsettling questions about my relationships with and to men. I’d accepted some pretty awful treatment from my first boyfriend, and had spent most of my life seeking the approval of men. I recognized myself, and hated myself, in her words. I thought she is right, and in class I spoke up quite a bit, but I also wanted those guys to like me! I wanted them to be my pals! I wanted to date one or all of them! But our gatherings evolved increasingly into pseudo-debates about gender and sex acted out primarily through pissing contests between a few of the guys over who could tell the most offensively racist or sexist joke. Most of the jokes involved turning any conversation into an opportunity to use the punchline “Baby, why you gotta make me hurt you?”

Damn me and my penchant for funny, charismatic men: I had a huge crush on one of the worst offenders in the group. The cognitive dissonance generated by aggressively pursuing this guy and reading Rich at the same time is almost impossible to describe. We hung out some and made out some, but it didn’t really go anywhere. The next semester, I spent an insane amount of money buying a special edition of Army of Darkness as a Valentine’s Day gift; only later would I discover he had another girl in his apartment when I gave it to him. I thought I could wear him down by being his version of awesome, which meant eschewing the protofeminist within and swearing, loudly and in front of people, that if I had a chance I would definitely fuck Britney Spears.

Another confession: Mr. Frank once chewed me out for calling Adrienne Rich a “chick.”

Yes. I did that.

But in the spring, after the class had wrapped up (we finished the semester with an analysis of Vertigo using Berger’s Ways of Seeing), the shine was fading from this social group. One of our members wrote an hilarious send-up of the class that he titled Frank Club, in which Frank had us do a close reading of “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?” We were each lampooned for our classroom quirks: Brian for always wearing a baseball cap; me for always having something to say; Matthew for taking the conversation in a twisted direction that no one could follow; and the rest of the guys (including my Crush) simply figured out a way to turn it into “Baby, why you gotta make me hurt you?” (This was a brilliant piece of satire and I wish I could reread it.)

I remember a party in early March at our friend James’s house. My Crush showed up and spent the entire time kung fu fighting with this other guy who I thought was a completely phony, pretentious jackass. And for the first time I really looked at him and asked myself how he was different from the jackass. Most of our parties, I’d realized, were really just an exercise in performances of masculinity, and this elaborate sparring was about as close to a literal cock fight as I’d ever seen. And that just no longer impressed me in any way. What was I really interested in, beyond his admittedly extremely good looks?

The next week, I wrote an essay for my Interpersonal Communications class. I had to compare and contrast two relationships in my life. I wrote about my Crush and my Friend, both guys from Frank Club. When I got the paper back, my teacher had simply written, WHAT ARE YOU GETTING OUT OF THIS RELATIONSHIP? next to the section on my Crush.

I thought about all these guys I’d been hanging out with and my extremely bad taste in men in the past and wondered why I was so attracted to charismatic dudes who were easily threatened by a powerful and smart lady. I decided to make a change, and try dating someone nice. Someone who seemed respectful and was a good listener rather than a good talker. Someone who might be threatened by Rich, but didn’t reject her outright. I picked Friend, a boy with a quiet presence, a person I always found myself looking for at parties and always happy to see. Plus, he smoked and god, it was sexy.

I invited Friend over to watch Temptation Island and waited for him to work up the guts to kiss me. It took approximately five hours. Finally, his heart pounding and palms sweaty, he kissed me: a long, soft, lovely first kiss just after midnight on March 29th. In about a month, we were making out to The Bends in his dorm room while the pear trees bloomed, and by the end of the semester, we were In Love. We got married three years later. (Happy kiss-iversary, Brian.)

It’s funny to me that so much about my Adrienne Rich story has to do with my relationships with and to white dudes, but that’s the truth. I started to expect better from the people around me, stopped changing myself to please men, and recognized myself as a smart and powerful person. Pretty soon I was reading Friedan and telling Brian that my worst nightmare would be living in the suburbs with a minivan (how I went from that to, ya know, living in the suburbs with a Camry is a whole other story). I ended up writing a feminist analysis of Anne Sexton’s poetry as an Honors thesis, directed by Mr. Frank. He also encouraged me to go to grad school in American Studies (oh well, can’t win ‘em all).

Rich planted the seeds of feminism in my fertile and doubting mind, and I started making better choices. My whole me was shaped by reading her work and for that, I am grateful.