Notes on Adrienne Rich

Twenty-one Love Poems, by Adrienne Rich, was the first lesbian poetry book I read. A fellow cadet when I was at ROTC camp after my junior year of college in 1980 suggested I read it, knowing something about me before I knew it myself. I went on to read much of her other work but the one piece that affected me the most, that in many ways defined me as a young adult and fledging dyke, was Adrienne Rich’s Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (1975). Adrienne Rich Reading her essay gave me clarity as I underwent the paradigm shifting experience of becoming a lesbian feminist from religious fundamentalist. Her words were simple and searching.

Women have to think, whether we want, in our relationships with each other, the kind of power that can be obtained through lying.

They provided me a foundation and essential structure for how my relationships could be defined and what my expectations of self and others might become.

In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or  person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even with our own lives.

This was very different from the concept of honor as learned from folklore and history, rife with men’s accomplishment through violence, revenge, and vigilantes.

In a March 2, 2011 interview with Kate Waldmen for the Paris Review, Adrienne Rich said “Nothing “obliges” us to behave as honorable human beings except each others’ possible examples of honesty and generosity and courage and lucidity, suggesting a greater social compact.” This quote reflects what she wrote in 1975 in her essay, “Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze of itself; it has to be created between people.

Adrienne Rich gave me a blueprint for transformation. Reading her words changed and charted my life as regardless of its trajectory, I sought to fulfill the “truly womanly idea of honor in the making” she wrote about in her Women and Honor.

Not long ago, I wondered at the concept of women and honor and considered how her essay would update to now, the 21st century, almost 40 years from when it was published. Pulling a yellowed, dog-eared copy from the shelf I’d re-read it. In doing so I realized that there was no authentic call for a revised, updated version. Her words still rang true. In some sense, even more accurate as our society has become more violent, more fractured, more manipulative than the cultural context of the mid 1970s.

Imagine now, if women, if all of us, regardless of orientation, embraced the message of her essay.

Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze of itself; it has to be created between people. This is true in political situations. The quality and depth of the politics evolving from a group depends in large part on their understanding of honor. Much of what is narrowly termed “politics” seems to rest on a longing for certainty even at the cost of honesty, for an analysis which, once given, need not be re-examined…It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

March 27th, 2012, Adrienne Rich died at the age of 82. Her words from nearly 40 years ago, remain a touchstone for “The possibility of life between us.

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