Thursday, 29 March 2012

Rest in peace, Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is dead. The beautiful, extraordinary brain who once refused a poetry prize from Bill Clinton, saying art was:
"incompatible with the cynical politics of this Administration.” She told a reporter, “I am not against government in general, but I am against a government where so much power is concentrated in so few hands.”
Adrienne Rich wrote the definitive tract exploring women's sexuality, when she fisked the idea that heterosexuality is natural rather than socially constructed and socially supported. For women this argument, in 1980, was revolutionary. She explained being lesbian to other feminists.

The white, Jewish, lesbian poet who fought for women's rights for decades, through prose and poetry. Who explained why white Jewishness was so strongly linked to anti-racism in the USA. Who integrated her identities by acknowledging them:
I have been reflecting on what feels so familiar about all this: to identify actively as a woman and ask what that means; to identify actively as a Jew and ask what that means. It is feminist politics - the efforts of women trying to work together as women across sexual, class, racial, ethnic and other lines - that have pushed me to look at the starved Jew in myself. If Not with Others, How? (1985)
Adrienne Rich wrote about the world and inequality with passion, kindness and anger. She made me consider what I thought about all the grand narratives, in particular white privilege:
This body. White, female; or female, white. The first obvious, lifelong facts. But I was born in the white section of a hospital which separated Black and white women in labor and Black and white babies in the nursery, just as it separated Black and white bodies in its morgue. I was defined as white before I was defined as female. Notes Towards A Politics of Location, (1984)
And she wrote about loving women, just when I was starting to. So deliciously, with such enthusiasm, that there was no doubt this was specifically erotic, this was loving women:
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine -- tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face has come and come --
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there --
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth --
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I have been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave -- whatever happens, this is.

The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,
The Dream of a Common Language, Poems 1974 - 1977
I feel as shocked by her death as I would a friend. She has been part of my life, a treasured part of my life, for more than twenty years. I wish those who loved her in person have the chance to mourn her with the grace and honour she deserves. For me, I'm taking two of her books away with me to read while I cycle in our beautiful southern maunga.

REST IN PEACE Adrienne Rich, you are one of my sheros.


Psycho Milt said...

...she fisked the idea that heterosexuality is natural rather than socially constructed...

Haven't read the book, but really hope it doesn't reflect the literal meaning of that quote, as that literal meaning is so obviously wrong it hurts.

Acid Queen said...

God, Psycho, picky picky.

You know what she meant, OK?

Stop trying to find excuses to be offended and maybe spend a bit more time examining your hetero privilege

LudditeJourno said...

Actually, I'd rather comments for this post focused on Adrienne Rich, not my admittedly limited use of the English language, thanks :-)

Tamara said...

I'm happy to infer the word "compulsory" in that sentence if it helps.

I got into feminist poetry at high school and love Adrienne Rich. She made a significant contribution.

verbscape said...

Unfortunately Rich leaves a legacy of substantial transphobia; she was heavily involved in Raymond's The Transsexual Empire, which casts trans women's bodies as rape and refers to them (quoting Rich) as "castrated men". Her contributions are flawed to say the least.

Acid Queen said...

Verbscape, there's a time and a place to criticise Rich. This isn't it. Show some respect.

Anonymous said...

The time/place for critique is when people are heaping un-countered praise on somebody who actually harmed quite a lot of people. So it's definitely appropriate to discuss that. She did a lot of great stuff, but there's no point glossing over her blatant transphobia and pretending like she was perfect.


Cara said...

Agree with anon above. Part of remembering someone's life is remembering them for their good works as well as their problematic and bigoted viewpoints.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually shocked that Acid Queen would tell someone to stop criticising and "show some respect" to Adrienne Rich. What respect did AR show to trans women, whose bodies she said were manifestations of rape and mutilation? Yeah, didn't think so. In fact, she respected them so much, she actively contributed to their erasure, discrimination and hardship.

She collaborated on the most transphobic book ever written. Any good shit she did kinda becomes irrelevant at that point.

Shocked, Wellington.

Acid Queen said...

I'm sorry you find the way I do feminism shocking.

Luckily I don't give a fuck what some anon troll thinks.

anthea said...

Acid Queen, please lay off the attacks on other commenters. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I find your "feminism" shocking if your feminism consists of supporting and idolising transphobic bigots, yes.

Shocked, Wellington.

Acid Queen said...

Fair enough

Anonymous said...

I'm also particularly shocked because how you are reacting here is at complete odds with other comments you've made on the issue on trans rights here:

ESPECIALLY this: "If you find yourself getting annoyed by what somebody is saying, please take the time to question whether that irritation is actually a feeling of privilege being called out. Often it is."

Kind of weird, too, that you dismiss me because I'm a "troll anon" but it's not as if you're writing under your real name either...

Shocked, Wellington.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about Rich's transphobic side. Disappointing, considering that she was on the side of anti-censorship activism during the Minneapolis porn ordinance debates in the eighties and was strongly involved in antiwar activism in the Bush era.

I want to pay tribute to the good work she did too-but I'd also appreciate some more details about her role in the Transsexual Empire, Raymond's hideous book. I do agree that there's a need for balance here.

Craig Y.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi all,
I'm very sorry not to have been able to respond to this discussion earlier - I have been sans internet since I wrote it.
Firstly, I completely agree that all of someone's political positions are relevant if their political advocacy is being celebrated (which I was doing in the original post). So thank you to those commenters raising Adrienne Rich's role in the Transsexual Empire.
However, it turns out not only is her "contribution" to this book not very clear (in that both quotes come from Janice Raymond, not Rich herself), but that no one has been able to find anything else Adrienne Rich ever wrote which was transphobic. And the whole internet has been looking.
While for me it's problematic that nothing exists from Adrienne Rich which challenges those attributed statements in the Transsexual Empire, I also note her lover, in 1987, wrote a novel (No Telephone to Heaven) with a central trans character which trans historians have described as "sympathetic and positive." And that trans warrior Leslie Feinberg and hir partner Minnie Bruce Pratt have both publicly thanked Adrienne Rich for support and inspiration in their books in the past.
I think there is very little doubt that transgender issues were not discussed with care or compassion by the majority of feminists - or anyone else - in the 1980s. The fact we talk and think about gender diversity including trans and intersex issues, differently now is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
I think it's likely trans issues were not important enough to Adrienne Rich to renounce those quotes publicly. Transphobic? Yes, probably. Central to maintaining transphobia? In my opinion, based on these two quotes as the only evidence we have, no. Views open to change? Possibly, given the evidence of relationships with Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg. Does it matter? Absolutely - but it does not, for me, undo the many other analytical gifts she gave to feminists and queer people and white people who care about racism.
Thanks, LJ