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Critical Essay by Elissa Greenwald
SOURCE: "The Dream of a Common Language: Vietnam Poetry as Reformation of Language and Feeling in the Poems of Adrienne Rich," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 97-102.
Below, Greenwald explains the effect of Rich's feminist consciousness in her poetry of the Vietnam era, highlighting her empathy with "the Enemy" and her appeal for a subjective version of the truth about war.
The presence of the Vietnam War in the poetry of Adrienne Rich must be considered in the context of her own presence at peace demonstrations and protests against the war throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, and her continuing leadership in the antiwar, feminist, and civil rights movements through the present time. During the Vietnam War, Rich's poetry was her public means of political protest, at a time when poetry was less divorced from the public realm than it is now. That Rich's and other poets' continuing cries against war, most recently in concerted protests against the Gulf War, have not had the public impact of earlier protests against the Vietnam war, is only testimony to the deformation of language and politics that is the legacy of the Vietnam war and its successors, the U.S. wars of the 1980s and the Gulf War. For Rich, the effects of the war in Vietnam included a corruption of language. In her poetry, then, the attempt to imagine and bring about peace especially takes the form of forging a new language and new poetic forms, seeking in subjectivity and improvisational form a new mode of truth-telling to counteract the distortions of official language during the war.
The fragmentary mode that has become the modus operandi of the 1980's and 1990's is seen in Rich's poetry as a consequence of living for nearly a decade in a nation at war, though one experienced by non-combatants in this country at a distance, through television imagery rather than directly. The consequences of being constant perpetrators of a brutal war include, for people in the United States, dislocations of both consciousness and morality. In Rich's poetry, by recovering meaning in language, the poet can provide a voice of public as well as private morality. Throughout her work, she seeks to validate her own language and subjectivity as a truthful counter to the public lies of official policy in Vietnam. Rich interweaves two themes in her poems about the war: the desire to identify and empathize with "the Enemy," the people of Vietnam, and the need to forge a new language that will reflect a subjective rather than "official" version of truth.
For Rich, the war invades personal as well as public interactions and even deforms the self. She seeks the reality behind the evasive official language of war in order to make the horrors of war vivid and so to accept moral responsibility for them. Through exploration of a subjectivity that counters official "facts." Rich also begins to forge a feminist consciousness, using military metaphors to describe her own consciousness (as in "Planetarium" , ARP):
I am bombarded yet I stand
I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe….
As the poem indicates, a position of seeming vulnerability can become one of power; the "untranslatable language," when translated, will put her in tune with forces that permeate the universe. While she initially identifies with the "enemy" as victim, seeing the female body as the site of "wounds," ultimately a female and feminist consciousness becomes a source of power to defeat the forces of war.
Similarly, in her poems about Vietnam Rich translates the "burning" of her own anger and desire into an external force, a revolutionary fire of consciousness which unites her with others. In "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," she links the burning of children by napalm in Vietnam with the burning of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Her heritage as a Jew (she is the child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother) provides her with both a means to empathize more fully with the "enemy" or victim in Vietnam and a history and moral legacy to counteract the destruction of the past that characterizes the war. In this and other poems, Rich makes "burning" the sign of a purgative moral anger and protest, a passion which remakes language and reality.
Rich's poems about Vietnam appear chiefly in three volumes, Leaflets: Poems 1965–1968, The Will to Change (1971), and Diving into the Wreck (1973), though her concern with peace continues to be a prominent concern throughout her poetry. In Leaflets, the war appears more often as imagery or background than as direct subject. But the poems convey the reality of life in wartime, when images of violence are never far from one's consciousness. In many poems in this volume, Rich undercuts the tendency towards violence by showing how the notion of the "Enemy" demonizes human beings; she seeks to understand and love the other by forging a subjectivity that internalizes the pain of others to chasten but strengthen the self.
In "The Demon Lover," the lover who seems to elude and frustrate her may also be a symbol of Death itself. For their lack of communication and pleasure takes place under the sign of war, at a time when the world is characterized by "something piercing and marred." Nonetheless, "The Demon Lover" celebrates the power of sexuality and language in a world characterized by destruction. She deconstructs the notion of the Enemy (who in this poem may be the loved one himself) by showing how clearly such notions are projections of anxieties within the self, results of a failure to love. In this poem, the war comes home to both community and personal relationships.
In one image, the poet dreams that she is actually under attack, in a fulfillment of the worst anxieties of people in the United States during the war in Vietnam: "I dreamed about the war. / We were all sitting at table / in a kitchen in Chicago. / The radio had just screamed / that Illinois was the target. / No one felt like leaving, / we sat by the open window / and talked in the sunset." This image of careless disregard for imminent danger is also one of freedom and language-making in the face of destruction. For, as Rich affirms, "Only where there is language is there world." Language at once mediates and creates reality for us. Though the harsh and distorting language of war may deform the world, the poet's words help to restore it: "Death's in the air, / we all know that. Still, for an hour, / I'd like to be gay, / … We are our words, and black and bruised and blue. / Under our skins, we're laughing." The knowledge or experience of violence and death has not destroyed the human capacity for language as celebration.
Nonetheless, the war cannot be exiled from one's consciousness. In "Nightbreak," Rich shows how war has been internalized, imploded into lover relations, as she portrays love as a beleaguered battleground. Rich takes on the guilt of U.S. violence in Vietnam by making herself the enemy, identifying with the Vietnamese as she pictures her own body as the site of war. "Nightbreak," with its dream-like images, translates the battlefield of war into the landscape of everyday life. The imagery of burning ("Into the oildrum drops / the ball of fire") and of enemy raids—images with which people in the United States were bombarded during the Vietnam War—has become internalized, so that nightfall in her bedroom recapitulates nightbreak on the battlefield.
The poet depicts her own body as what is broken or wounded, as the force of destruction is localized to her bed, which may be a place where broken pieces are also joined. On one level, her descriptions here may be seen as two views of heterosexual sex, as either healing ("the rifts fill") or "wounding." On another level, the images indicates Rich's personification of the war in her own body, as she takes on the wounds of Vietnam: "In the bed the pieces fly together / and the rifts fill or else / my body is a list of wounds / symmetrically placed / a village / blown open by planes / that did not finish the job."
Rich shows the absurdity of describing people as "the enemy" by showing that in effect there is no enemy: "the enemy has withdrawn / between raids become invisible / there are / no agencies / of relief." Here, as she becomes the "shaken target" who eventually succumbs to sleep, the estranged and distant lover becomes a version of the enemy. In a more metaphysical sense, the withdrawal of the enemy symbolizes the lack of real agency, the impersonal machinery of war.
Rich here indicates the capacity of lover or of her own creative imagination to make "the pieces fly together." The world that remains here is deeply "cracked" and scarred, but nightbreak is "Time for the pieces / to move / dumbly back / toward each other." The image of two lovers reconciling applies as well to the two countries which are enemies. to the attempted union of fragments. In this poem, as in Eliot's "The Waste Land," Rich seeks usable fragments of history or language to "shore against my ruins." Poetry is seen as an act of healing, of overcoming the division between the self and an "enemy" which may be imaginary.
In "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" (also written in 1968), in The Will to Change, Rich more fully connects public war and private disturbance. This poem explores the capacity of language to elucidate or obscure moral truth. It begins with a neighbor's protest against her son's burning of a book, which the neighbor says reminds him of Hitler. As Rich also recalls the recent destruction of written draft records by Daniel Berrigan in Catonsville, Maryland, she realizes that the real parallel to the Nazis is in the burning of children by napalm in Vietnam. The moral status of language itself is unclear, as the poem's epigraph, a quotation from Berrigan, suggests that he was driven to action to evade the ambiguities of language: "I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence." The imagery of burning spreads to connect the Berrigans' destruction of draft records with Hitler's book-burning and the burning of villages and countryside with napalm in Vietnam. Ultimately Rich honors both her neighbor's memories of the Holocaust and her son's innocence by distinguishing the burning of paper from the burning of children, while understanding the historical link between the two in the Holocaust.
Rich begins by evoking a library, a storehouse of records that preserves the past (while the draft office attacked by the Berrigans contained records destined to deliver young men to death). Even her library contains books that evoke images of death and burning: The Book of the Dead, The Trial of Jeanne d'Arc. Rich identifies with Joan of Arc in both her heroism and her martyrdom: "I dream of her too often // love and fear in a house / knowledge of the oppressor / I know it hurts to burn." Burning becomes internal as well as external, the expression of faith and protest as well as suffering. Hatred of the "oppressor" causes both Rich and Joan of Arc to burn; Rich links hatred of the public "oppressor" (of patriarchy, of a war-waging government) to the private oppression she experiences "in a house," the "love and fear" she may feel for a lover seen as another kind of oppressor.
The lover is the subject of the poem's second section, in which the cultural pursuits of the neighbor mentioned at the poem's beginning (science and art) are translated into a description of sexual love, seen as "a time of chemistry and music." In a moment of heightened intimacy, the poet is at once delivered from the necessity of using language ("relief // from this tongue this slab of limestone") and yet in need of it, in order to communicate with another human being: "knowledge of the oppressor / this is the oppressor's language // yet I need it to talk to you." The lover then becomes not himself the "oppressor," but only another victim, forced to use the "oppressor's language" in order to communicate. Language becomes at once the enabler of and the barrier to private communication and love.
Language itself must be purged, for the oppressor's language deliberately distorts or deletes the fact of oppression: the disorder of poverty, the aggression of war. In seeking "the fracture of order / the repair of speech / to overcome this suffering," Rich quotes one of her students at the City University of New York, whose somewhat fractured yet eloquent prose reveals the sufferings of poverty.
This imperfect expression is, for Rich, far more eloquent than most books in her library, because it reflects and depicts social and political reality. She finds literature largely inadequate as a guide to life and especially to love. For literary experience does not necessarily clarify feeling; one must burn through (not burn up) language to reach the truth it at once embodies and conceals: "so on that page / the clot and fissure / of it appears / words of a man / in pain / a naked word / entering the clot / a hand grasping / through bars … / burn the texts said Artaud." In Artaud's revolutionary formulation, only by destroying accepted texts can the meaning hidden in language be released from its imperfect embodiment, so that a revolution in feeling as well as politics can occur.
In the final section of the poem, Rich connects her private voice with the public speech of protests, such as that of the Berrigans and even her own political speeches: "I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of today. How well we all spoke." In extemporaneous verse, Rich provides a different kind of language, more personal and improvisational than the received wisdom of the official, oppressor's language.
For Rich, here language can only reflect the poetry-killing reality of the war and other forms of suffering. Suffering can be articulated only briefly and in glimpses, as, echoing her student's words, she notes: "Some of the suffering are: it is hard to tell the truth; this is America; I cannot touch you now." Finally, Rich is unable to overcome the numbness that comes from years of watching American brutality in Vietnam: "The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me."
The Berrigans' protest and what it is protesting are linked, as the fires of her own anger and faith become the fires of oppression which neither she nor her poetry can escape: "I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning, I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor's language."
In this poem, Rich has tried to use the literature of the past as a resource, but only finds herself consumed by the burning within and outside of her. Clearly, the war has come home ("there are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland") and though she wishes to protect her son, she must also face the necessity of seeing her own numbness passed down to her child, who thus may lose a sense of morality. Yet in the final conflagration of "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," Rich succeeds at least in questioning the certainties of language (an important effort since, as Berrigan writes, he was in danger of "verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence") and virtually burning through language itself, attempting to escape its falsifying potential to provide a medium that reflects suffering and feeling.
While the poet's voice becomes almost literally self-consuming in "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," it is more detached and analytic in "The Phenomenology of Anger" (1972), from Diving into the Wreck. Here, as the title implies, the poet steps back from her anger to depict the horrors of war with an almost documentary precision, rather than the tumultuous agglomeration of events and images with which "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" concludes.
In this poem, written in the same year as "Diving into the Wreck" (1972)—a poem in which Rich sorts through the detritus of history to recover the history of women—, she sorts through a series of frightening emotions: forms of anger and "Madness. Suicide. Murder." The sometimes flat tone reflects the terror and numbness of a time near the end of a seemingly endless war, which Rich describes as "Time without a taste: time without decisions."
In this poem, Rich longs for burning as a release from stasis. Just as she initially envies "the freedom of the wholly mad," she longs for fire—for passion, for emotion—which she cannot kindle. Even on a literal level, she cannot start a fire from logs, though she welcomes the "warm sweet simmer of the hay." She differentiates the burning of natural passion from the artificial destruction of war. Her vision of "the enemy" here is as the opposite of what burns: something frozen, "shrouded / in a snowy blur, abominable snowman." While the language of war would see the Vietnamese people as the enemy, here the enemy is a hypostatized villain, sub- or superhuman, that has no country. The enemy is the personification of war itself, of the kind of thinking that dichotomizes and polarizes countries and people: "at once the most destructive / and the most elusive being / gunning down the babies at My Lai / vanishing in the face of confrontation. // The prince of air and darkness / computing body counts, masturbating / in the factory / of facts."
The poet directs her pain and rage not inward, towards madness and suicide, but in a focused attack on the beast of war itself:
… When I dream of meeting
the enemy, this is my dream:
ripples from my body
on the true enemy
raking his body down to the thread
burning away his lie
leaving him in a new world; a changed man
The "true enemy" is not the Vietnamese people but the war machine and patriarchy itself, and Rich sees herself as using the heat of her voice, her passion, and her body to strip away the "lie" of those institutions and to make the world anew.
Yet the distortions of personal life that are caused by or parallel to the distortions of war remain. Against the background of her protests against the war, Rich sketches the picture of an alienated personal life, in which her lover withdraws from her into activities hauntingly reminiscent of the war. A simple domestic gesture—the spreading of a pesticide, perhaps, or the burning of crops to make them grow more—takes on sinister overtones, as the lover becomes a version of the enemy who attacked "the babies at My Lai," who takes refuge from emotional issues in artificial destruction: "you are out there burning the crops / with some new sublimate …"; "Last night, in this room, weeping / I asked you: what are you feeling? / do you feel anything? // Now in the torsion of your body / as you defoliate the fields we lived from / I have your answer." Rich suggests that the deformation of private feeling is not just a consequence but the cause of war, the source of the capacity to become detached from feeling which enables atrocities like the one at My Lai to occur.
Against the background of this unnatural destruction, Rich longs for a life at one with nature, a landscape which begins to sound not unlike that of Vietnam: "I would have loved to lived in a world / of women and men gaily / in collusion with green leaves, stalks, / building mineral cities, transparent domes, / little huts of woven grass / each with its own pattern— / a conspiracy to co-exist with the Crab Nebula, the exploding / universe, the Mind—." The consciousness with which the poet seeks to place herself in harmony is that of the universe itself, an almost God-like intelligence or at least a natural governing order.
But this image of Utopian cities composed of natural structures is only a dream. In reality she sees "how we are burning up our lives" as the poem concludes with a Dantesque vision of a city with subway riders apparently "asleep or drugged." Nonetheless, the burning of passion and anger within her is present in others as well, even those who seem numbed. Finally, in this poem she is not consumed by that passion but gains from it a revolutionary stance, a new form of consciousness which, unlike the fire of "defoliation" or the "new sublimate," burns with a purgative force:
staring holes of fire into the air
others plan rebellion:
night after night
awake in prison, my mind
licked at the mattress like a flame
till the cellblock went up roaring
Thoreau setting fire to the woods
Every act of becoming conscious
(it says here in this book)
is an unnatural act
In wartime, the revolutionary, what deviates from accepted wisdom, is seen as unnatural, yet it is in reality the most natural of all, as she implies by invoking Thoreau, naturalist and revolutionary.
While, in "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," the poet and poetry are virtually consumed from within, in this poem the poet's analysis of her anger as phenomenon allows the fire to be expressed in condemnation of the most horrible atrocities, and to forge a new language and consciousness. Rich's "dream of a common language" depends first of all on the capacity to create a new subjectivity which avoids the threats of "madness" and "suicide," to refine anger to an "acetylene" intensity and focus, and then to share that new consciousness with others who "burn" similarly under the weight of oppression. In poems like "Nightbreak," where her body becomes the Vietnamese village, or "Planetarium," where she similarly becomes the receptacle for radio signals, Rich takes the status of victim into her own consciousness and even her own body. She forges a new, feminist subjectivity based on the rejection rather than imposition of oppression, the identification with rather than opposition to "the enemy."
Such identification means for Rich exploring a particularly female capacity to overcome the difference between self and other, which she sees as a "source of power" ("Three Conversations" , ARP 115). The subjectivity which for Rich begins as a site or result of wounding becomes ultimately a way to heal and remake reality. The use of sexuality as the ground on which language and love rather than aggression must be founded enables her to connect a feminist consciousness with the female body. In her poetry, her subjectivity becomes a new mode of truth.
Through Rich's symbolism and her innovative, seemingly improvisational, forms, her most private experience (as depicted in the poetry) becomes the foundation for a feminist consciousness that is a political as well as a personal force. In "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" (1970), she notes her desire, in the face of meanings that elude her, "to do something very common, in my own way." In "Implosions" (1968), the poet notes that "I wanted to choose words that even you / would have to be changed by" and asks the anonymous "you" to "Take the word / of my pulse." That language, founded in the body, borne along the blood, becomes in "When We Dead Awaken" (1971) an elemental force, the blue vein of her pulse translated into a vein in bedrock:
Here in the matrix of need and anger …
… never have we been closer to the truth
of the lies we were living, listen to me:
the faithfulness I can imagine would be a weed
flowering in tar, a blue energy piercing
the massed atoms of a bedrock disbelief.
In poems like "Planetarium" (1968), her individual quest for wholeness and linguistic expression becomes a communal one:
I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
Here it is not only her own body that she seeks to relieve nor her own mind that she tries to reconstruct. From the depths of her own subjectivity, Rich forges a new, woman-centered consciousness in which individual perception becomes part of a common understanding and common good. This common language is one her poetry at once exemplifies and helps to create.
Rich's feminist consciousness was forged in the fires of Vietnam, in protests against the war and sometimes against the protesters as well. The necessity of linking feminism and pacifism so forcefully underlined by Rich in prose (Of Woman Born; On Lies, Secrets, and Silence) as well as poetry was made clear again as fires burned in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991. For only when feminism continues to critique militarism can both peace and women's freedom have a chance.
This section contains 4,133 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)