Buzzed Books #67 by Freesia McKee
Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry
In college, I learned as a gender studies major that feminism encourages us to understand our lives in the context of larger social movements. Situating our experiences within larger trends helps sustain emotional and psychological survival.
Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and published by Norton this month, shows us how Rich spent her lifetime making personal-political connections and communicating the legacies of other feminists. The editor is a feminist literary scholar, and readers with diverse feminist interests will find much to glean from this book.
The institution of motherhood, capitalism, lesbian existence, female tokenism, racism, nationalism, and power are just a few themes Rich tackles. Included is Rich’s extensive commentary about her literary foremothers, among them Dickinson, Hurston, Bishop, Brontë, Rukeyser, de Beauvoir, Chopin, and Woolf. She also engages with her contemporaries: Lorde, Jordan, and Smith-Rosenberg, among them.
The essays themselves are readable, personal, and relevant. Decades after their initial publication, these words remain necessary. As I become an older reader and feminist, occupying new roles in my community, Rich’s prose resonates for me in evolving ways. I found myself extensively annotating even pieces I’d read multiple times before. Part of the joy of reading another’s life’s work is that you can return to it again and again, understanding her growth anew as you change yourself.
To study Rich’s prose is to study a writer committed to the long-game of feminism. “It was an astonishing time to be a woman of my age,” Rich writes of her feminist awakening during the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s in “Split at the Root.” By the time Rich was in her 30s, feminist social dissent confirmed the impulses and analyses she had long pondered.
Rich came out as a lesbian in the 1970s. She began analyzing more deeply the influence of tokenism, sexism and homophobia, and class and racial privilege in her life. Even in her earliest years of writing and publishing, Rich knew that there were “problems for the woman writer: problems of contact with herself, problems of language and style, problems of energy and survival” (“When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision”).
Feminist writers who use the raw material of lived experience tell a powerful story. Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” about the “lesbian continuum” examines “why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise.” In this essay, Rich is not simply describing sexual or romantic relationships between women. Her idea of the lesbian continuum encompasses many different kinds of relationships.
Rich goes on to write in this same essay, “If we consider the possibility that all women…exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not.” She frames the lesbian continuum as “the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support.” Many more people fit within this frame than what Rich calls a “mostly clinical,” traditional definition of lesbian.
Rich’s writing about the lesbian continuum is vivid terrain to re-examine now. We can conceptualize the lesbian continuum through “re-vision,” a word that Rich famously discusses in “When We Dead Awaken,” one of her earliest essays. Rich defines revision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entertaining an old text from a new critical direction.”
We can re-envision Rich’s “lesbian continuum” using queer theory, which challenges the gender binary and moves us away from essentialism. We should do more than simply substitute the word “queer” for “lesbian.” The lesbian continuum could articulate and encompass all the actions, emotions, and existence that lie outside of repetitive patriarchal modes. Rich’s lesbian continuum can represent a socially and historically inclusive vision of queerness, one for which we often still struggle for language.
As we learn through reading her essays, Rich held an unwavering commitment to analyzing her relationship to feminism and revisioning feminism’s role in our evolving world. In Rich’s later life, in the 1990s and 2000s, she wrote extensively about capitalism. She points out in “Arts of the Possible,” “Capitalism lost no time in rearranging itself around this phenomenon called ‘feminism,’ bringing some women closer to centers of power while extruding most others at an accelerating rate… We are learning that only a politics of the whole society can resist such assimilation.”
This quotation speaks to tokenism, a concept with which Rich was well acquainted as a token “smart girl” in the 1930s and 1940s. Tokenism, though, pits the token against the group she came from, dis-identifying her so that she cannot or will not change the power structure. A token gives the illusion of change while maintaining the oppressive apparatus.
CIA Director Gina Haspel, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, and other white token women’s climb toward power and prestige have led to the murders of thousands of people around the world. It’s important that people of all genders cut through capitalism’s co-optation of feminism. We must fight daily for an intersectional feminist existence where no token is allowed to get away with murder.
Feminism, Rich reminds us, is about more than simply filling a seat. She knew that when one is put into a role of authority, it’s important to dissent against oppressive power structures. As one example described in “Arts of the Possible,” Rich refused the prestigious National Medal for the Arts, questioning publically how a country incarcerating more people than anywhere else in the world could give medals to artists.
The lesbian continuum framework helps us think about how relating to one another authentically is, in many ways, policed and punished. Rich’s framework also helps us dream about the world we strive for. Her writing about patriarchy, racism, tokenism, and other social travesties implores us to acknowledge the parts we play in violence and greed. Her writing about feminist literary foremothers and “blood, bread, and poetry” (the original title of one of her prose collections) gives us another kind of map: one that helps us mobilize as feminists.
Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press, 2017). Her words have appeared in cream city review, The Feminist Wire, Painted Bride Quarterly, Gertrude, Huffington Post, and Sundress Press’s anthology Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity. Freesia lives in North Miami.
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