Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations

I bumped up against Adrienne Rich again by way of Deborah Levy’s memoir and was only too happy to slurp up this book of essays/talks from that deliriously long-ago pre-9/11 year. She thunders down at me that things weren’t so glorious back then, we were still witnessing “accelerated social disintegration” and the effects of “an economic system out of control and antihuman at its core.” Yet 20 years later, we haven’t pushed past this, still falling into our late capitalist pit of despair.

I think Levy pointed me this way for Rich’s 1975 essay, Some Notes on Lying, which was one of my favorites of the bunch. “There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying, or that lying becomes a weapon we carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us.” Her 1983 Blood, Bread, and Poetry essay was equally strong, calling out the confusing dominant culture in the U.S. that tells us “poetry is neither economically profitable nor politically effective,” that poets are “destined to be a luxury, a decorative garnish on the buffet table of the university curriculum, the ceremonial occasion, the national celebration.” She names what excites her most: poets who mix poetry of the actual world with the poetry of sound. Politics is always on the table with Rich, from her unified stance accepting the 1974 National Book Award with a joint statement from Audrey Lorde and Alice Walker to her 1997 declining of President Clinton’s National Medal of the Arts.

Her work is peppered with gems from others, like James Baldwin; “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.”

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

My list of books to read is well over a hundred books, but every time I read something from the Second Wave, I end up with dozens more. I got hipped to this book by way of Alison Bechdel’s slightly disappointing Are You My Mother?, and went down a rabbit hole of trying to find a photo of the 1974 National Book Award acceptance speech Adrienne Rich gave where she shared the honor with Audrey Lorde and Alice Walker (no photo exists that I can find). As I read this book I attempted to chase down the ghosts from the 1970s feminist past by searching for traces of forgotten (or still thriving) institutions Rich mentions, like the Feminist Studio Workshop in LA (now the Women’s Building), the Sagaris Institute (no longer around and hardly any traces except one that netted me an oral history with Dorothy Allison), Maiden Rock Institute in Minnesota (a ghostly trace left in a list of grant files), and the still kicking Feminist Art Institute.
Comprised of several of her essays, introductions, and other prose musings, the one that has stuck most in my head is that of Emily Dickinson (Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson), making me want to go out and buy her complete works. The forward to the work illustrates the constant wiping away of memories of our foremothers, the connections between these historical figures cut and left to dangle solo.

On the continuing theme I’m discovering, where the latest technology is blamed for the destruction of society, from the Foreword:

The television screen has throughout the world replaced, or is fast replacing: oral poetry; old wives’ tales; children’s story-acting games and verbal lore; lullabies; “playing the sevens”; political argument; the reading of books too difficult for the reader, yet somehow read; tales of “when I was your age” told by parents and grandparents to children, linking them to their own past; singing in parts; memorization of poetry; the oral transmitting of skills and remedies; reading aloud; recitation; both community and solitude. People grow up who not only don’t know how to read, a late-acquired skill among the world’s majority; they don’t know how to talk, to tel stories, to sing, to listen and remember, to argue, to pierce an opponent’s argument, to use metaphor and imagery and inspired exaggeration in speech; people are growing up in the slack flicker of a pale light which lacks the concentrated burn of a candle flame or oil wick or the bulb of a gooseneck desk lamp: a pale, wavering, oblong shimmer, emitting incessant noise, which is to real knowledge or discourse what the manic or weepy protestations of a drunk are to responsible speech. Drunks do have a way of holding an audience, though, and so does the shimmery ill-focused oblong screen.

In an early chapter on Anne Bradstreet, she talks about the strain of being a talented woman specifically in the early days of the U.S. “Intellectual intensity among women gave cause for uneasiness: the unnerving performance of Anne Hutchinson had disordered the colony in 1636, and John Winthrop wrote feelingly in 1645 of ‘a godly young woman, and of special parts, who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding, and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and written many books.'”

Rich writes about her own struggle to find time to write in a world where she’d just had her third child: “What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along on a current which called itself my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been…” In order to create, she needed time and space, and “a certain freedom of the mind…-freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away.”

Writing about women in higher education, “The exceptional women who have emerged from this system and who hold distinguished positions in it are just that: the required exceptions used by every system to justify and maintain itself.” Later, “in every discipline where we are considered, women are perceived as the objects rather than the originators of inquiry, thus primarily through male eyes, thus as a special category. That the true business of civilization has been in the hands of men is the lesson absorbed by every student of the traditional sources.” On the women who get ahead in the hierarchy, “Each woman in the university is defined by her relationship to the men in power instead of her relationship to other women up and down the scale. Now, this fragmentation among women is merely a replication of the fragmentation from each other that we undergo in the society outside; in accepting the premise that advancement and security–even the chance to do one’s best work–lie in propitiating and identifying with men who have some power, we have always found ourselves in competition with each other and blinded to our common struggles.”

To read: Jane Anger, Rachel Speight, Elizabeth Carey, Anne Askew, Olympe des Gouges, Flora Tristan, Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, Elizabeth Gould Davis