18 January, 2010Issue 11.1PoetryThe Arts

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Redirecting the Gaze to the Body

Erik Fuhrer

foerAdrienne Rich
A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society
W.W. Norton & Company, 2009
208 Pages
£11.99
ISBN 978-0393070064

Adrienne Rich’s latest volume of essays, A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, gathers short lectures, prefaces, and reviews written and published between 1997 and 2008. Emphasising social awareness and engagement as the critical aims of art, these essays reflect Rich’s lifelong struggle to integrate political conscience with artistic creation.

Rich has been a major voice in poetry ever since W.H. Auden selected her debut collection, A Change of World (1951), for the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. Yet while the poems in this volume were remarkable in many ways, it was not until Diving into the Wreck, published in 1973 and winner of the National Book Award, that Rich gained canonical status. She is known not only as a poet—she has received nearly every major American poetry award—but also as a cultural critic and activist, and has been an outspoken participant in feminist and anti-war movements.

“A Human Eye”, her 29th book, takes its title from Karl Marx’s “Private Property and Communism”, which Rich quotes in her foreword: “the eye has become a human eye only when its object has become a human, social object.” She adds, “When art—as language, music, or in palpable, physically present silence—can induce that kind of seeing, holding and responding, it can restore us to our senses.” Whether dealing with Jewish identity, translation of Iraqi poetry, poets like Muriel Rukeyser and LeRoi Jones, or Marx himself, Rich’s commentary is always rooted in the ways art can, or should, reawaken our numbed consciousnesses to levels of physical and cultural awareness.

Art’s purpose, in other words, is to uncommodify the gaze, to replace the eye’s need to own an object with the eye’s need to “see” it and understand its unique physicality. This ideology of blending politics, poetics, and the body echoes lines from “The Demon Lover”, an early poem published in Leaflets (1969): “Only where there is language is there world/ In the harp of my hair, compose me a song.” Reality as language, language as physical act, whether by lips, or touch, or both.

Rich’s work has always aimed to discern real “truth” from the “truths” presented to us by the dominant capitalist discourse. This aim is nowhere more apparent than in her groundbreaking poem, “Diving into the Wreck”, in which she encases her flesh in “body-armor of black rubber/ the absurd flippers/ the grave and awkward mask” and dives into the deep searching for “the wreck itself and not the story of the wreck.” This wreck is both metaphorical and literal, representing not only the wrecks of history and culture, but the wreck of the body itself. Holding “a book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear”, she sets herself the task of writing her body—and the bodies of the dispossessed implicit in the word “our”—back into the language and thus back into the world.

This was also the task of her eminent essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, a deliberate attempt to write lesbians into feminist discourse, and it remains the task of A Human Eye. Perhaps the greatest example of this can be found in her essay, “Jewish Days and Nights”, in which she characterises “true” Jewishness as being variegated in nature, insisting that “diaspora—a multi-faceted condition—means never always, or anywhere, being just like other Jews.” To follow this “truth” would be to dive into the wreck and discover bodies and voices not represented by dominant Jewish, especially American Jewish, discourse. She laments the highjacking of Jewish culture by fundamentalists groups, which she finds antithetical to “true” Jewish teaching.

Judaism envisioned in this way as something plural and shifting rather than fixed reflects the necessity of transmission within and between cultures. Rich further addresses this necessity in the preceding essay, Iraqi Poetry Today, where she interrogates the politics of translation with a battery of suggestive questions: “whose poetry is translated, from and into what languages, what of the poetry actually translated can get published and receive international distribution, what poets (and what poetics) are disseminated, and who decides these matters?” These inquiries beget others relating to the authenticity and trustworthiness of the translation. Beneath it all lies the question: what bodies are being left behind in the wreckage?

For Rich, poetry is in part untranslatable, “unmistakably human as the human face yet varied as faces are.” At the same time, the act of translation is a bodily event: it is to “make love with a new person, in a different body.” This romance can yield beauty and even understanding, though that understanding will always remain imperfect. Rich is wary of the pitfalls of translation yet conceives of it as a powerful vehicle for the dissemination of difference (of cultures, of bodies, of politics) that we must dive into in order to rescue individual and collective bodies from the wreckage.

Perhaps the most rewarding parts of Rich’s collection are those in which she allows other voices to speak. She is fond of presenting full quotations, laying the whole bodies of poems down in the middle of her text to converse with it, merge with it, and transform it. She is not afraid to pull back and allow other poems to deliver their own individual impact, without the distraction of her critical commentary. She also delights in exposing readers to poems which they might have never encountered; though LeRoi Jones (better known by his adopted name, Amiri Baraka), James Baldwin, and Walt Whitman may be household names to most readers, poets such as Thomas Avena, Fadhil al-Azzawi, Fawzi Karim, Nazik alMala’ika, Shulamith Hareven, Edmond Jabès, June Jordan, Judy Grahn, Yannis Ritsos, Dennis Brutus, and Rami Saari might not be.

Similarly, the social critics whom she quotes, such as Che Guevara and Rosa Luxemburg are probably best known to many readers by name alone. Even Karl Marx is represented by less popular quotations (such as that referenced in Rich’s title), thereby offering most readers “new” material from a major figure. Rich’s project is to rescue these figures and their bodies of work from the wreck, to restore them to the surface.

A Human Eye is an essential text that carries Rich’s joint political and artistic project into the 21st century. The essays included in this volume teach us to see differently, to think differently. Rich writes, “Amid profiteering language, commoditizing of intimate emotions, and public misery, I want poems that embody—make into flesh—another principle. A complex, dialogic, coherent poetry to dissolve both complacency and despair.” Rich herself has always provided us with this type of poetry, and these essays continue this legacy. Her voice is never self-important or self-involved, it never claims absolute authority; rather, it takes every chance to relinquish authority in the service of a greater and more impactful inclusiveness. Everything should be questioned; everyone should be given a voice. To read Rich’s new volume is to share in a communion of voices ranging from the forgotten to the dispossessed, who are all struggling, along with Rich, to be heard. Rich’s eye gazes on them all, and they all gaze back; survivors of the wreck, left out of the book of myths, but written here.

Erik Fuhrer received an MLitt from the University of Glasgow in 2009. He wrote his dissertation on Virginia Woolf.