A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1996-2008
By Adrienne Rich
W.W. Norton & Co., 208 pages, $24.95.
Seventy-nine-year-old Adrienne Rich has always refused to succumb to the multiple traumas that life has thrust upon her. One senses that this courageous poet and political activist has been blessed with an overabundance of resilience and empathy — qualities she would need desperately. She has spent most of her life fighting chronic arthritic pain that began when she was only in her 20s, but she used her periodic bouts of immobility to make herself into a more sensitive and thoughtful artist. Rich did not come out as a lesbian until she was well into her 40s, and she has lived for many decades with her partner, novelist Michelle Cliff. She does not speak publicly about the intimacies of their relationship.
In her new book of essays, Rich covers a wide range of subjects intelligently and with bravado. There are essays on Iraqi poetry, the art of poetic translation, and a close examination of the current state of contemporary poetry and the poetic process. She reveals her profound disappointment with the demise of the socialistic ideal all around the world, and expresses outrage at what she perceives to be our nation’s overly aggressive and militaristic policies.
Rich is always searching for new talented poets. In 1996, she wrote in The Nation, “I was looking for poetry that could rouse me from fatigue, stir me from grief, poetry that was redemptive in the sense of offering a kind of deliverance or rescue from the imagination, and poetry that awoke delight….”
For a long time, feelings of euphoria and delight were a struggle for Rich. While still a very young woman, she surrendered to intense social and familial pressure and married Harvard economist Alfred Conrad. This was the early 1940s — before feminism, before civil rights, before women studies college curriculums gave a legitimate and dignified voice to women like her, who often felt unanchored and ashamed. Soon after the wedding, Rich became pregnant. Within five years, she gave birth to three sons. Tragically, her husband committed suicide when the boys were still teenagers.
Rich has written revolutionary rhetoric about her ambivalent relationship with motherhood, which still resonates decades later. About her three boys, who were then very little, she once wrote: “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alteration between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings towards these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance.” Then one day, while her toddlers were napping, she began writing “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” Years later, her manifesto, “Of Woman Born,” was published. It brilliantly explored all aspects of motherhood from a feminist perspective, and challenged long-held assumptions that had coerced women into believing they must cut off essential parts of themselves in order to be effective and loving mothers.
Rich grew up the eldest daughter of a very controlling Jewish man who was a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University. Frustrated, he felt that being Jewish prevented him from receiving the promotions he was due. He was a bit of a taskmaster with young Adrienne, often insisting she write a poem for him daily, which he would critique. The process irritated her, while nurturing her love of words. Her more troubling relationship was with her gentile mother, a frustrated pianist who tried to train her daughter to become a proper young lady. The tension that enveloped mother and daughter stayed with Rich always; there was a persistent sour taste in her mouth. She remembers that when she finally left to attend Radcliffe College, away from the constraints of her family home, she felt suddenly able to breathe more easily.
Approaching 80, Rich is still uncannily curious and idealistic, someone who continues to struggle to understand love and life and politics and war and male aggression, and what drives us apart from one another. Her heroes, whom she writes about in this fine collection, are Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. She describes all of them as possessing a wonderful “energy of hope, an engagement with society, a belief that critical thinking must accompany action, and a passion for the human world and its possibilities.” It is this moral philosophy upon which she has tried to live her life. It is her solemn belief that “the serious revolutionary, like the serious artist, can’t afford to lead a sentimental or self-deceiving life. Patience, open eyes, and critical imagination are required of both kinds of creativity.” She sees being a poet and being a revolutionary as inseparable parts of her identity as an artist; one cannot exist without the other.
Rich’s prose often mimics her poetic rhythms and vision. She is always daring and provocative, opinionated and defiant, angry and loving, and vulnerable and intense. In this collection of essays, she is drawn to poets who share her worldview, which is a desire for gender and sexual orientation, and religion and politics and ethnicity, to become secondary to a more nuanced and heartfelt recognition of our shared humanity. She is for obliterating the restrictive boxes people attempt to trap us in, and she dreams of a more open-minded world. She writes movingly about James Baldwin, June Jordan, LeRoi Jones, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov, finding in all these artists a shared sensibility about the potential beauty of Universalism.
Even when it comes to the complexities of Jewish identity and the tragedies of Jewish suffering of the past century, Rich clings to her utopian vision in a way that seems to negate history and the social reality of our times with regard to antisemitism. She reveres the notion of a “non-Jewish Jew,” which she describes as “not a Jew trying to pass, deny, or escape from the wounds and fears of the community, but a Jew resistant to dogma, separatism, to ‘remembering instead of thinking’ in Nadine Gordimer’s words — anything that shuts down the music of the future. A Jew whose solidarity with the exiled and persecuted is unrestricted. A Jew without borders.”
The reader can’t help but wonder if Rich’s romantic notion about “non-Jewish Jews” is possibly rooted in the writer’s own troubled biography. Forced to grow up during the homophobic 1940s, Rich often felt like an outcast: first with her parents, whom she could not please, then with her husband and children, and finally with her patriarchal professors, who praised her as long as she didn’t stray from their definition of artistic excellence. The frustration of feeling different, along with her discomfort with the roles that society expected her to play, surely fueled her desire for a more forgiving world. But occasionally, her yearnings for a socialistic Shangri-La seem to blind her to the tribal drumbeat that resides within all of us and has unfortunately landed with an unforgiving thud on the chests of Jewish people everywhere.
Elaine Margolin is a freelance book reviewer and essayist for The Jerusalem Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications.