From the Same Source as Her Power:
A Threnody for Adrienne Rich
by Chase Dimock
How do we account for and preserve a writer’s power after she dies? At the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, any researcher who wants to access the lab books and notes of the legendary scientist Marie Curie must first sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of leafing through her papers. Over a hundred years after Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, her lab book is still radioactive enough to set off a Geiger counter. Perhaps this is why when I heard of Adrienne Rich’s passing last month, I immediately thought of her 1974 poem “Power” about Marie Curie. Just as Curie’s words literally radiate from her pages with the physical properties of the power that she discovered, so too does Rich’s six decades of poetry continue to empower the reader with her social critique and introspection.
The Poetical is the Political
In the past few weeks, several obituaries and memorials have been written to commemorate the life of Adrienne Rich after she passed away from rheumatoid arthritis at age 82. In every remembrance, Rich’s status as a “feminist poet” comes to the forefront and in the process of assembling a biography, the age-old rift between politics and poetics, art for art’s sake versus art for raising social consciousness, is still being waged over Rich’s death. Most of Rich’s critics and detractors over the course of her career dismissed her work as overly polemical, accusing her of sacrificing poetics for politics, as if these are somehow mutually exclusive entities. As Rich herself once said, “One man said my politics trivialized my poetry…. I don’t think politics is trivial — it’s not trivial for me. And what is this thing called literature? It’s writing. It’s writing by all kinds of people. Including me.” For Rich and other feminists who came of age under the belief that “the personal is the political”, it was impossible for the deep introspection of poetry to not find the political oppression of gender and sexual non-conformists as inextricably determinative of one’s psyche and soul. Rather, Rich would contend that to believe poetry could be written outside of the political is to naturalize one’s worldview and political privilege. Being “apolitical” is the privilege of those who have power.
The poetical is the political, but according to Rich, the poetical needed protection from the political. In 1997, Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts as a protest against the House of Representatives’ vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She argued that ”the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” adding that art ”means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.” While Rich believed in poetry’s ability to illuminate the political, she was unwilling to allow politics to use her poetry as a token gesture to feign interest in women’s issues while camouflaging the growing disparity of power in the nation and the fact that, as Rich put it, “democracy in this country has been in decline”.
Rich did write political essays as well, including the seminal “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” in 1980, which predicted the anti-normative analysis of queer theory that would be pioneered by Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick a decade later. Her essay identified the power of heterosexuality in our culture to define and naturalize standards for acceptable social and sexual practices and to marginalize and pathologize those who did not comply. She contended that this power not only harmed lesbians, but all women because it reinforced a sex-segregated delegation of social obligations that denigrated the power of women to pursue their own desires. Rich declared that all women should think of themselves as part of a “lesbian continuum”, which valorizes all same-sex bonds from the platonic to the erotic in order to create new practices and knowledges outside the constraints of patriarchy. It is in this respect that I understand Adrienne Rich’s power to be more than being a poet: she was a theorist on the very nature of power itself, scribing in verse and lyric what Michel Foucault wrote in volumes of philosophy.
When Adrienne Rich wrote her landmark poem “Power” in 1974, the concept of Women’s History, the study of women’s historically marginalized contributions to society and the experience of women living under patriarchy, was still taking form during the second wave of feminism. “Power” performs much of the work that the study of Women’s History has done in the past four decades. Rich does not just call attention to Marie Curie’s contributions to science, but she also examines the social context of her work in the male-dominated world of scientific inquiry at the turn of the century and how her status as a woman and her research on radioactivity created a mutually informing, and ultimately fatal relationship. Her research on radioactivity granted Curie the worldwide fame and prestige in the academy that few women had ever enjoyed; yet as radioactivity empowered her social being, it weakened her physical being as it ate away at her body and slowly consumed her. Writing in the great upwelling of feminist consciousness, Rich updates Christopher Marlowe’s famous maxim “quod me nutrit me destruit” (that which nourishes me destroys me) for a generation of women challenging patriarchy’s Faustian pact that offers material comfort at the cost of social agency.
Rich frames her poem as an excavation of that which is “Living in the earth-deposits of our history”. This sets us up for a reconciliation of two aspects of history, its socially constructed aspect built on master narratives and received knowledges and its material aspect composed of the actual artifacts left behind and the impact it had in shaping the present . Both aspects mutually inform each other to create a palimpsest of discourse and knowledges, both conceptual and as material as the very ground in which we bury the past and build the future upon. The privilege of excavating this past and to reconcile it with present cultural narratives and mythologies is the power to create knowledge and truth.
In the first full stanza, Rich burrows into a material engagement with the historical palimpsest: “Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth/ one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old/ cure for fever or melancholy a tonic/ for living on this earth in the winters of this climate”. This bottle found in the ground would seem neutral enough just as a mere object, yet when placed in its historical context, it becomes a clue toward illuminating the lived-experience of women a century in the past. As Christopher T. Hamilton writes:
“the bottle of tonic is likely a symbolic reference to quackery, an indirect analogy to charlatans who looked for opportunities to exploit others for financial gain, and ultimately for power…A common feature in many towns in the 1870s was a type of male “doctor” who preyed on the sick, capitalizing on their vulnerabilities to make a quick reputation and a quick dollar before moving on to extort more money in other towns and cities.”
I also add that the 19th century was a time of renewed interest in the physiology and psychology of women and that a tonic that could cure melancholy may also be a reference to hysteria, a now discredited feminine psychological disorder or catchall diagnosis that lumped together depression, anxiety, and other nervous constitutions as one overall condition that stemmed from the perceived inferiority of the woman’s body. These symptoms of depression that very well could have resulted from unhappiness under patriarchal control were treated as a disease with tonics, dietary restrictions, and even electrical vibrators by doctors who believed women’s unhappiness was the result of sexual dysfunction. In short, the rise of interest in women’s health in the 19th century was guided by the patriarchal bias of feminine inferiority that attempted to naturalize the subjugation of women through pathologizing their anatomy. For Rich, it is not enough to just preserve artifacts of the past; we must also preserve the social context of the artifact in order to become literate readers of history as determinative of the present.
The Toxic Remnants of Power Exercised on the Body of the Earth
Before I move to Rich’s address of Marie Curie in the next stanza, I want to draw a parallel between the perfectly preserved amber bottle of tonic and the still present radiation in Curie’s lab books. Last weekend, I had the privilege to hear an excellent talk by Phillip Dickinson of the University of Toronto at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference on Michael Madsen’s documentary “Into Eternity” about the Onkalo nuclear waste facility in Finland. The film documents the construction of a deep geological repository for nuclear waste, which will seal drums of radioactive material 2,000 feet into solid bedrock “into eternity” and take until next century to fill. The repository will not be safe for human entry for another 10,000 years, and accordingly, the film raises questions about how we will warn generations thousands of years into the future about the radioactive danger we have buried for them, given the fact that no human structure has ever existed for that long and that human civilization could be radically different from our present state, just like it was at the dawn of recorded history 5,000 years ago. How do we both bury and warn the future about the damage our generation has done when we ourselves can barely understand the social conditions of history from only 100 years ago, let alone thousands of years ago? How do we preserve our present social context for future generations when we seem so inclined toward always burying and concealing the unpleasant aftermath, the toxic spillover of our civilization?
I believe that Rich’s poem is addressing a similar issue in trying to investigate and preserve the social context of found artifacts and historical discourse for women. Just as we may fear that generations thousands of years from now may find Onkalo, the refuse of our ability to produce power, and think it may be a historical treasure akin to our “discovery” of the tomb of King Tut, so too does Rich reiterate that the bottle is not some benign novelty, but evidence of the damage that the power of a generation had inflicted on the bodies and minds from a century ago. Unlike the nuclear waste, the contents of the bottle were chemically benign, but the social politics built around it were oppressive and, like a radioactive fall-out, we have yet to experience the half-life of the damage that it has wrought on the future.
In this context, the radioactive properties of Marie Curie’s lab book become sadly ironic. Shifting from the amber bottle to the biography of Marie Curie, Rich’s poem at first gives us the illusion of a stark contrast between a scene of women’s oppression at the hands of science and a scene of a woman empowered by science whose work would revolutionize the practice of medicine. Yet, as she further investigates Curie, we see that even in the hands of a genius, power (both in the social sense and in the scientific sense of the term) is a complicated relationship between forces without any possible mastery. Rich writes: She must have known she suffered from radiation sickness/her body bombarded for years by the element/ she had purified/ It seems she denied to the end/ the source of the cataracts on her eyes/ the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends/ till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil”.
Curie’s discovery challenged the 19th century law of the conservation of energy, and her resulting fame challenged the laws of the land that subjugated women. Curie discovered power in its very material essence–the power that would be refined into running the engine of 20th century civilization through its nuclear power plants and fight its conflicts when dropped from the heavens to annihilate entire populations.
This intellectual power to discover physical power made her a woman of nearly unparalleled fame and power, yet as Foucault reminds us in philosophy and Rich reminds us in poetics, power is not something one can possess, but it is instead a relationship between entities that determines knowledge, discourse, and constitutes our identities and social realities. We can direct and influence power, but we cannot control it. Curie discovered the effects of radioactivity and helped to channel its use toward productive means, but she herself could not control it or keep it from infecting her. For Rich, these relationships of power are inherent in patriarchy. Patriarchy builds civilization, but its cost has been the subjugation of billions of gender, racial, class, and sexual minorities, generation after generation. Civilization has harnessed the generative powers of radioactivity for medicine and for energy production, but it comes at the cost of nuclear waste that will outlive us and scar the planet for thousands of years.
Denying our Wounds
Ultimately, we, like Curie at the end of the poem are left denying our wounds, denying our wounds came from the same source as our power. We bear the scars of civilization’s oppressive foundation, but we powder over them with talk of democracy, humanitarianism, and spirituality—preferring to dwell on the powers it has given us instead of those that have been taken away. Yet, I do not believe that Adrienne Rich set out to make Marie Curie a tragic or pathetic figure. Rather, she makes it clear she believes that Curie, “must have known she suffered from radiation sickness”, meaning that she was fully aware that the source of her power was killing her, but that she decided to pursue her research regardless.
Writing from after the advent of queer theory, which owes much to Rich’s work, I have to think that Curie becomes “queered” toward the end of the poem. Her orientation toward futurity and self-preservation inherent to normative heterosexuality becomes deferred in favor of the pursuit of knowledge and a devotion to her research that will ultimately kill her. She chooses a truncated, but brilliant and fulfilling existence, to channel and exercise a power that she understands will cripple her. According to Rich, this is not just the fate of Curie, but of all women rising up during the second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s who understood that the same institutions of empowerment guaranteed to them by liberal democracy to articulate themselves and redress their grievances will also be used against them by state authorities to silence and intimidate them. Rich saw in the 60s that freedom of speech and public assembly would greeted by the state with riot gear, fire hoses, and police dogs.
Yet, Rich knew that these wounds came from the same source as one’s power and by speaking back to these institutions, like the state and patriarchy that grant us freedoms on paper but endeavor to restrain us in practice, Rich articulated the inner-workings of power and revealed that power relations exercised by social institutions work because they operate from within. We internalize them, shape ourselves by their imperatives, then deny the violence that they wreak inside us. Rich’s greatest revelation is this denial—and that this act of denying is in of itself an exercise of power.