Review: Adrienne Rich’s “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence”

by Miles Raymer


Months ago, my decision to purchase this book was an act of intellectual calculation. I’d heard an excellent recommendation on a podcast, and believed dipping into the mind of Adrienne Rich would be edifying. In the wake of the recent election, however, I grabbed this collection of essays off my bookshelf in an act of desperation. What was I seeking? Solace in the words of a radical writer from my mother’s generation of feminists? A reminder that courageous people struggled for equality in America well before I was born? An escape to a moment when America’s problems, dire as they were, seemed ultimately surmountable?

I suppose I was seeking all of those things; what I found was much richer. The first thing anyone will notice when taking up one of these essays is Rich’s voice: verbose, melodic, contemplative, harsh and soothing at once:

Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe. It is as if forces we can lay claim to in no other way, become present to us in sensuous form. The knowledge and use of this magic goes back very far: the rune; the chant; the incantation; the spell; the kenning; sacred words; forbidden words; the naming of the child, the plant, the insect, the ocean, the configuration of stars, the snow, the sensation in the body. The ritual telling of the dream. The physical reality of the human voice; of words gouged or incised in stone or wood, woven in silk or wool, painted in vellum, or traced in sand. (248, emphasis hers)

Even when I disagreed with Rich’s views, I relished floating through her mind. This book is enough to make anyone wish for poets to write more academic essays, and for academics to write more poetry.

I have a long list of notes from reading this book. They describe themes, reactions, comparisons to the politics of today. They grasp at meanings that can be distilled, polished, reproduced. They are, historically speaking, male reactions, received directly from training in male institutions. They seek to possess and subdue, wrapping a weary reality in the illusion of control.

The spirit of Rich’s writing is profoundly orthogonal to all that. Whether writing about poetry, poets themselves, politics, feminism, or history, Rich exhausts the reader with possibility and sheer force; her prose blows open the doors of the stuffy room and peers outside into the wilderness. Rich annihilates untruths by celebrating unnamed or misunderstood truth-tellers and life-livers:

Like Virginia Woolf, I am aware of the women who are not with us here because they are washing dishes and looking after the children. Nearly fifty years after she spoke, the fact remains largely unchanged. And I am thinking also of women whom she left out of the picture altogether––women who are washing other people’s dishes and caring for other people’s children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children. We seem to be special women here…we are teachers, writers, academicians; our own gifts could not have been enough, for we all know women whose gifts are buried or aborted. Our struggles can have meaning and our privileges––however precarious under patriarchy––can be justified only if they can help to change the lives of women whose gifts––and whose very being––continue to be thwarted and silenced. (38)

The dynamics described here appear everywhere between the powerful and the powerless, between the privileged and the wanting, between the celebrated and the forgotten. Gender is just one arena––albeit an extraordinarily important one––amongst many where people all over the world are struggling to gain some ground, or stand their ground, or claim ground from underneath others. Rich’s understanding of the dynamics of oppression, which is both general and highly specific, offers a wealth of insight to anyone concerned with the nature of the world’s brokenness and possible paths of progress: “The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality” (192).

The salutary effect of these essays springs from how they blend the intellectual and the emotional, reminding us that rational analysis is inescapably suffused with a bodily energy in every human that outruns itself. The uncatchable prey is always ten steps ahead of the following hunter, and we delude ourselves by pretending we are one and not always also the other. The fist that smashes the mirror is language:

When we become acutely, disturbingly aware of the language we are using and that is using us, we begin to grasp a material resource…Language is as real, as tangible in our lives as streets, pipelines, telephone switchboards, microwaves, radioactivity, cloning laboratories, nuclear power stations. We might hypothetically possess ourselves of every recognized technological resource on the North American continent, but as long as our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be “revolutionary” but not transformative. (247-8)

This review feels inadequate, but only because I am so accustomed to coming to conclusions about what a piece of writing means to me. The cavalier attitude with which I pass judgment on books––smearing the work forever with calculations and summaries––is something of a disgrace. I doubt it will change much, given that it is also a powerful addiction. But this book defies me, and I love it for that.  

Rating: no rating