.. s Rich’s breadth, complexity and multidimensionality, in focusing on a fragment of a much larger statement when she states categorically that ‘women’s supposed “complicated, pain-enduring, multipleasured physicality” hardly seems a very hopeful basis on which to build resistance to their social subordination..’ (14) Well no, it wouldn’t be, if that were actually what Rich was proposing. I turn to a fragment from Integrity, from A Wild Patience to illustrate something of the complexity to be found in the poetry This extract is from ‘Integrity’, collected in A Wild Patience: Anger and tenderness: my selves. And now I can believe they breathe in me as angels, not polarities. Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius to spin and weave in the same action from her own body, anywhere – even from a broken web.(15) In my book I argue how Rich moves beyond dualism in her poetry – an argument I cannot go into – but here ‘Experience’ can be both private and public, personal and political – anger and tenderness, despite being contradictory emotions, need not be mutually exclusive terms.
A tension-filled conflict may live and breathe in a woman’s body as different aspects of her experiencing, yet it is integral to the processes and struggles of being female. Just as the image of the spider spinning and weaving simultaneously suggests the indivisibility of these polar opposites, so too culture and nature, subjectivity and objectivity, social and psychological, body and mind, are inter-implicated with each other – in Rich’s non-dichotomous understanding of the mind / body. These few lines point to a radically subversive process. Identifying herself and other women who fall short of the nurturing ideal woman – Rich transgressively restores to language that which had been silenced and delegitimated within a patriarchal culture and tradition. Her culturally unacceptable anger becomes acknowledged and empathically recognised, rather than condemned.
To profoundly accept her own split ‘selves’ (and those of other women) is to validate and to transform her sensory experiencing, her self-esteem, her sense of her own power, the meaning of her existence. Women have long been engaged in a vigilant and exacting process of bringing to critical awareness the contradictions, ambiguities and impositions of our diverse experience so as to reach a realm where such incoherences can become rendered conscious and intelligible within language so that they may be thought. This invitation to transform thinking, I would argue, constitutes a very different project to that envisaged by Sayers. From being framed within essentialist injunctions that insist that woman’s nature is to nurture, women may now move from a position of disempowerment and self-castigation towards a greater sense of integrity – a discursive shift has occurred that significantly permits new identifications to be made, different positions to be taken up, new inner and outer perspectives to be considered, and thus a new future may become conceivable, other potentials may be rendered possible. I want to leave the seventies behind and pick up my argument around the body in a later chapter of the book – during the eighties Rich begins to see the ‘core of revolutionary process’ as ‘the long struggle against lofty and privileged abstraction’, and urges a close focus on materiality, on geographical location and voice.
(16) the need to locate the historical and social moment – the context, the precise location in time and space, the ‘geography’ of a particular statement – the ‘When, where, and under what conditions has the statement been true?’.(17) She brings us back to ‘the geography closest in – the body’ and in so doing, Rich works out her strategy to bring feminist theory ‘back down to earth again’.(18) Theory – the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees – theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.(19) In putting her case for a focus on material bodily difference, Rich subtly returns to Lacan’s hardly earthy formula for understanding sexual difference, in theorising her politics of location. She expands on her earlier attempts to counter the dominance of the phallus through an emphasis on the sexual specificities of the female, but now highlights race as equally important in the construction of identity.(20) Possessing Black or white skin colour assigns ‘my body’ to a particular social status and position within the specific cultural hierarchy (North American) operating in a specific locality (Baltimore). Just as in Lacan, this designation begins in infancy: Even to begin with my body I have to say that from the outset that body had more than one identity. When I was carried out of the hospital into the world, I was viewed and treated as female, but also viewed and treated as white – by both Black and white people.
I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex – though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe. To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognising this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go(21) However, not like Lacan, this is accessibly written, Rich’s language always refusing the temptation to soar skywards into elevated theoretical abstraction. In this passage, with its silent, unreferenced echo of Lacanian theory, possessing whiteness and possessing the phallus are directly comparable in the sense that they have been designated a superior position at the centre of the regulatory practices of North American culture. And so, though it is necessary, it is not enough for feminist theory merely to recognise and affirm the specificities of the femaleness of the body as a countering strategy – skin colour, racial background, cultural and other locational differences all matter, in that they function to differentiate one body from another and to organise diverse bodies towards serving the powerful imperatives of heterosexism, imperialism, post-colonialism, and white male dominance in whatever form it manifests itself. In the course of my book, I try to identify the complexity of these poetic and political strategies in action – the interweaving of that ‘geography closest in’, the history – with the emerging’truths’ of dreams, desires, sexualities and subjectivities.
For her, it is as important to examine the individual dream life as it is to address the politics, for even the dreamlife is situated within and emerges out of unconscious experience which, of course, also has a history. Inescapably personal but also political, dreams are bound to their historical moment of production. Being endlessly subject to re-interpretation, they are themselves an interpretation. Rich calls here for the necessity to be vigilant, to be aware that limits, boundaries, borders – whether to feminist theory, to politics, to poetry or to dream – can operate even at this deepest image-making level of the psyche: When my dreams showed signs of becoming politically correct no unruly images escaping beyond borders when walking in the street I found my themes cut out for me knew what I would not report for fear of enemies’ usage then I began to wonder. (22) Accountability, responsibility – asking these profound questions – ‘What is missing here? how am I using this? – becomes part of the creative process’.(23) I agree with Rich when she claims that ‘poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire’.
(24) If desire itself becomes boundaried within the systems and coercions of corporate capitalism, our power to imagine becomes stultified. If the poet’s ‘themes’ are delimited through the fear of ‘enemies’ usage’, and even her role as witness inhibited through fear of comebacks, then the vital role of the revolutionary writer to know words, to use words, to rely on words to imagine and to convey the necessity to create a just, humane society, may be undermined. As Rich suggests A poem can’t free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have had urged on us, have accepted as our own. It’s not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it’s an instrument for embodied experience. But we seek that experience or recognise it when it is offered to us, because it reminds us in some way of our need.
After that rearousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours.(25) ‘The wick of desire’ always projects itself towards a possible future – and, in this revolutionary art ‘is an alchemy through which waste, greed, brutality, frozen indifference, “blind sorrow” and anger are transmuted into some drenching recognition of the what if? – the possible.'(26) However, the knowledge that comes from out of our embodied experience is, in Rich’s work, inextricable from the languages in which it is spoken, thought, imaged, dreamed. It is a theme which recurs and recurs throughout Rich’s work to date – our concrete needs, the passionate urgency of our desires, the intensity of women’s diverse struggles – these are identified and identifiable, just as our differences can be identified and are identifiable as continually in process and are always to be held up to question. Taking nothing for granted, maintaining a continual vigilance against taking anything presumed to be ‘true’ at its face value, Rich constantly questions the premises of her own thought, working critically with the language she uses. If ‘language is the site of history’s enactment’, then it is also for Rich the site for questioning that history of experience; for evaluating the impositions and alienations that are the outcome of domination; for plumbing the depths and analysing the complexities of what constitutes identity. Throughout these four decades, Rich has found herself interpreting and re-interpreting the contradictory social realities of our lives always critically conscious of the workings of power – not only ‘possessive, exploitative power’ but also ‘the power to engender, to create, to bring forth fuller life’. (27) These are large aims, befitting the work of this major feminist theorist and revolutionary poet.