Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Rape" by Adrienne Rich and Political Poetics

by Adrienne Rich

There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

If my intentions for posting this poem are not obvious, see here , here, and here.  Beyond that, I post this poem because it confounds any attempt to relegate rape to a rhetorical move a political pundit can use to score ideological cred with his or her party.  Unfortunately, this move is a common one in current politics.  The definition of rape is debated, not with the lives of rape victims in mind, but with the political careers of those arguing in mind.  Rape become an opportunity for people like Todd Akin to make abstract ideological proclamations that are divorced from the realities they pretend to address, i.e. the lived experiences of rape victims. Once an ideology escapes reality in this way it becomes nothing more than a tool for opportunists like Akin to exploit. 

This is what Rich’s poem resists.  The terror of rape, here, is irrefutable. She relies on poetry’s inherent resistance to easy mental ingestion to make a simplistic approach to rape impossible.  Although the title couldn’t be clearer, the identities within the poem are enigmatic: the cop is both prowler and father, confessor and rapist. This ambiguity makes reading the poem an uncomfortable experience, as does her harsh language, e.g.: “He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash.” Also, the repetition of frightening lines like, “he has access to machinery that could kill you,” and “in the sickening light of the precinct,” create a tone of trauma in the poem. I point these elements out because they demonstrate how a poem can present a topic in an experiential way, instead of merely presenting information. 

According to Princeton’s latest Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, political poetry is all but impotent in the United States.  Whoever wrote the entry on politics and poetry had this to say: “Most comtemp. political poems, however offensive they would be to those who do not read them, are consoling to those who do. American poets write about the possibility of civic change, but their poems are – quite rightly – no longer of interest to politicians, statesemen, and political administrators, because few American poets begin from a belief in political processes or agents as worth of sustained scrutinty.  They rarely take politics seriously enough in political terms, nor do they present political problems as difficult to solve or as ethically problematic.”

Although I think Adrienne Rich confounds this diagnosis, I can’t think of many other poets who do.  I can sympathize with struggling to take American politics seriously, but the consequences of our politics are generally devastating both nationally and internationally.  But instead of blaming poets for politicians’ disinterest in poetry, I blame the readers and critics of poetry.  Every poem has the political potential to accuse, witness, and resist, but it is up to the reader of the poetry to access the poem’s latent political power.  A poem is silent until it is read.  I understand that political poetry bears the stigma of didacticism, but I hope Rich’s poem (and poetry in general) demonstrates that fears of didacticism are moot.  Rich once said, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” I think, as elections draw near, readers of poetry and literature in general need to give poems legs and teeth by making them public, along with their interpretations.