posted by Mel
When I’m searching for clarity in my life, I turn to poetry the way some folks turn to their Bible. I think some poets, not all, are seers. Some poets play with language. Others wield it like a scalpel. A few use it to unlock truths they themselves might not even have fully and consciously discerned. The poem I share below is not the one I’m meditating on today. That one’s too private. This is one, however, that I’ve spent a lot of time with over the last year or so as I’ve pondered what it means to be a woman and a mother and what kind of responsibilities I have to the world and humankind. It seems particularly apt today as so many in America simultaneously experience new hope and renewed alienation with the election of Barack Obama coinciding with same sex marriage and same sex adoption bans in several states.
As most who have been coming here for a while have probably figured out, Adrienne Rich is someone I look to as a seer. This poem comes from her collection The Dream of a Common Language. It’s a long one, but I think you need the entire poem for context. The lines that are particularly poignant for me are the ones about the quantification of suffering– something I find myself guilty of far too often and something I am working to move beyond. Let us not be persuaded to deny our connections to others.
Hunger, by Adrienne Rich
–for Audre Lorde
A fogged hill-scene on an enormous continent,
intimacy rigged with terrors,
a sequence of blurs the Chinese painter’s ink-stick planned,
a scene of desolation comforted
by two human figures recklessly exposed,
leaning together in a sticklike boat
in the foreground. Maybe we look like this,
I don’t know. I’m wondering
whether we even have what we think we have–
lighted windows signifying shelter,
a film of domesticity
over fragile roofs. I know I’m partly somewhere else–
huts strung across a drought-stretched land
not mine, dried breasts, mine and not mine, a mother
watching my children shrink with hunger.
I live in my Western skin,
my Western vision, torn
and flung to what I can’t control or even fathom.
Quantify suffering, you could rule the world.
They *can* rule the world while they can persuade us
our pain belongs in some order.
Is death by famine worse than death by suicide,
than a life of famine and suicide, if a black lesbian dies,
if a white prostitute dies, if a woman genius
starves herself to feed others,
self-hatred battening on her body?
Something that kills us or leaves us half-alive
is raging under the name of an “act of god”
in Chad, in Niger, in the Upper Volta–
yes, that male god that acts on us and on our children,
that male State that acts on us and on our children
till our brains are blunted by malnutrition,
yet sharpened by the passion for survival,
our powers expended daily on the struggle
to hand a kind of life on to our children,
to change reality for our lovers
even in a single trembling drop of water.
We can look at each other through both our lifetimes
like those two figures in the sticklike boat
flung together in the Chinese ink-scene;
even our intimacies are rigged with terror.
Quantify suffering? My guilt at least is open,
I stand convicted by all my convictions–
you, too. We shrink from touching
our power, we shrink away, we starve ourselves
and each other, we’re scared shitless
of what it could be to take and use our love,
hose it on a city, on a world,
to wield and guide its spray, destroying
poisons, parasites, rats, viruses–
like the terrible mothers we long and dread to be.
The decision to feed the world
is the real decision. No revolution
has chosen it. For that choice requires
that women shall be free.
I choke on the taste of bread in North America
but the taste of hunger in North America
is poisoning me. Yes, I’m alive to write these words,
to leaf through Kollwitz’s women
huddling the stricken children into their stricken arms
the “mothers” drained of milk, the “survivors” driven
to self-abortion, self-starvation, to a vision
bitter, concrete, and wordless.
I’m alive to want more than life,
want it for others starving and unborn,
to name the deprivations boring
into my will, my affections, into the brains
of daughters, sisters, lovers caught in the crossfire
of terrorists of the mind.
In the black mirror of the subway window
hangs my own face, hollow with anger and desire.
Swathed in exhaustion, on the trampled newsprint,
a woman shields a dead child from the camera.
The passion to be inscribes her body.
Until we find each other, we are alone.