- Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier
Virago, 398 pp, £17.99, March 1999, ISBN 1 86049 685 7
- Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-98 by Adrienne Rich
Norton, 75 pp, £14.95, March 1999, ISBN 0 393 04682 6
The language of survival has always been fundamental to feminism. Germaine Greer seems to be convinced that the species is heading for extinction. (Some time ago, in an article in the Observer, she envisaged a time ‘when, far in the future, the human race has exterminated itself.’) For a time, Adrienne Rich believed that what was destroying itself was patriarchy: ‘The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out,’ she wrote in 1971, ‘what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction’ (‘When We Dead Awaken’). Women’s task in advancing its end was simple, brutal and clear: ‘As women, we have our work cut out for us.’
Rich often speaks of ‘survival’ and of feminism as a ‘struggle for survival’. (She has also said of writing poetry: ‘I feel as though it’s for my survival, first and foremost’ – Interview, 1991.) But in the early poems she was not so much exhorting ferninism – a role at which no one has been better – as setting it a question. In ‘Waking in the Dark’, a poem from her 1973 collection, Diving into the Wreck – Midnight Salvage can be read at least in part as that book’s reprise – she asks what can be salvaged if ‘Nothing can save this’: if nothing can rescue the world which masculinity has made ‘unfit for women or men’, what will be left for the survivor other than to wander lost and dazed, or else to dive into the debris and shine the beam of poetry into the wreck? And if we are, as we seem to be, talking survival, with all its Darwinian echoes, can feminism exempt itself from the failures of the race? Diving into the Wreck was Rich’s seventh collection of poetry. Her first appeared in 1951, which is to say that in 1973 – generally seen as the very beginning of the second wave of 20th-century feminism – she was already in a position to look back:
I don’t know who we thought we were
that our personalities
could resist the failures of the race
Lucky or unlucky, we didn’t know
the race had failures of that order
and that we were going to share them
(‘From a Survivor’)
Surviving is an awkward business; Rich’s writing can be read as a continuous exploration of the difficulties it poses for feminism. If patriarchy is hurtling towards extinction, should feminism join in, to complete the job? If the energies of patriarchy are so overwhelming, how can the inspired fierceness of our own enterprise, even our own dreams, not be contaminated by the fierceness of men? ‘When I dream of meeting/the enemy, this is my dream:/white acetylene/ripples from my body’ (‘The Phenomenology of Anger’ from Diving into the Wreck). Can you destroy something well? No survivor ever feels wholly benign. No survivor, surveying the wreckage all around her, feels simply entitled to survive. One of the – millenarian – questions being put today both by feminists and, for very different reasons, by their critics is how far feminism has survived itself. Feminism, one might say, is uniquely poised to consider the question – recalcitrant and yet germane to any politics – of how to endure one’s own rage. If, as Rich would have it, feminism is a struggle for survival, are women, or the species, to be saved?
The bonobo is a female-centred, egalitarian primate species, of which only a few thousand survive, virtually inaccessible to humans, in the remote forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Aggressive Behaviour, the Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression, introduces a review of Frans de Waal’s Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape somewhat apologetically: ‘Although most of this journal is devoted to papers on aggressive behaviour and violence, it is worth remembering that its mandate also includes the study of peaceable alternatives.’ A ‘tragic and optimistic species’, the bonobo exceptionally uses sex to resolve clashes of power rather than the other way round. ‘As these intelligent creatures gaze from the photographs,’ the reviewer writes, ‘it is virtually impossible to avoid responses of anthropomorphic delight.’ Natalie Angier shares this delight and in Woman: An Intimate Geography offers the bonobo, if not quite as a role model for women, at least as an alternative primate lineage, another history we can wrench from biology in order to build a better future world. ‘Our lineage,’ she says, citing Bonobo, ‘is more flexible than we thought.’
On the face of it, Angier has written a book about science. Although it can be seen as being in some ways critical of Darwinism, it begins with a defence of what Darwinian science might have to say about the female body. Feminism has repudiated scientific arguments about the body at too high a cost, severing the mental from the sensual substratum of our lives. Germaine Greer devotes chapter after chapter of The Whole Woman to the monstrous inflictions and mutilations enacted on women’s bodies, mainly at men’s but sometimes at women’s own behest. Angier comes at the same problem from the other end. She has written a ‘celebration of the female body’; and science, including Darwinian science, can be mobilised in the service of that celebration: woman is an ‘evolutionary masterpiece’. Woman: An Intimate Geography is in this sense a kind of conjuring act. Angier knows how hard it can be for women to enjoy, as one might say, or take pleasure in themselves. She knows that celebration is close to incantation, like warding off demons in the dark. ‘I have made it a kind of hobby, almost a mission,’ she said in the introduction to The Beauty of the Beastly (1996), ‘to write about organisms that many people find repugnant.’ She is, one could say, a writer who honours her own loathing. Woman: An Intimate Geography is not the first feminist ode to joy which feels at moments as if it has been snatched from the jaws of fear.
Do women love women? Feminism – uniquely perhaps among political movements – has always had to wrestle with what its main protagonists are feeling and thinking, not only about their opponents, but about each other and themselves. In part because it assumes that one of the things patriarchy does best is to drive wedges between women, feminists have been spared the delusion of believing that harmony and shared political interest are necessarily the same thing (or that the second can be comfortably relied on to breed the first). In one of her most famous essays, ‘Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Rich called on women to reject what she defined as the forcing house of heterosexual intercourse and turn instead to women – for love, for sex, for contact. Angier is firmly on the side of heterosexuality and even marriage. (In a bizarre twist, she argues that monogamous women – precisely, ‘married, conservative, Christian women’ – have especial orgasmic capacity, or rather claimed to have when questioned, which might make us wonder who this group of women were aiming to please.) But if the bonobos are crucial, it is because they seem to suggest that there are no heights of solidarity which women cannot reach, that they do love each other – or at least did once, in another species existence. ‘The original adult deep bonding,’ Rich wrote in her essay, ‘is that of woman for woman.’ The bonobo is the best living example we have of a gynae-cocentric primate world.
Gynaecocracy may not, however, be an idyllic affair. Rich spoke of ‘empowering joy’ between women, but Angier is more cautious. Bonobos ‘fight, and they’re hierarchical and greedy, and they can be murderous towards each other’. A whole chapter of Woman: An Intimate Geography is devoted to a spirited defence of the aggression of little girls (a resolute cheerfulness, or ‘chirpy wellness’, to use Angier’s own expression, pervades the book): ‘the hyena girls, the leopard girls, the coyote and the crow girls ... the living, seething, aggressive girls who are the only girls I have ever known’. The spotted hyena comes close to being Angier’s next heroine after the bonobo. Not so much for her undisputed bad behaviour – ‘the hyena soul is pure fury’ – but for demonstrating, contrary to the first scientific investigations into the matter, that her aggression is not attributable to the high testosterone levels to which both male and female cubs are exposed in the uterus. In which case aggression ceases to be the prerogative of the testosterone-charged male.
Nonetheless Angier would like aggression – our kind of aggression – to be a good thing: ‘women-centred, harsh and intimate’. This will take some doing. One of feminism’s greatest talents has been to turn such psychological posers into its best trick, but this one might be the hardest of all. If we do not like aggression in men (not the same as saying all men are always aggressive), but like the myth of our sweet passivity even less, where should we look? If there is, as Angier puts it, an ‘aggressive need for female alliance’, are you sure you will be able to tell the aggression and the alliance apart, keep the aggression out of the group? Angier recognises the problem of unharmful aggression but still believes that there is no limit to what women can achieve if they set their hearts and minds on it: ‘We are free to salvage aggression and do with it as we please. We can rehabilitate it and recode it. We can share it.’ (How exactly – without losing it – can aggression be shared?)
Angier describes her book as ‘liberation biology’. In this she is oddly close to Greer – ‘a woman’s body is the battlefield where she fights for liberation’ – but light-years from Camille Paglia (‘that most noisome and anti-feminist of self-proclaimed feminists’, as Angier describes her), despite Paglia’s claim, in the most recent issue of Women: A Cultural Review, that she has been vindicated by the return to the agenda of hormones and biological sex differences. (Is it a biological argument to suggest that women’s disgust at their own menstrual blood can be traced to our ‘evolutionary revulsion from slime?’) Angier is unapologetic about raiding the pantry of scientific findings for her own ends: she calls her book a ‘scientific fantasia’. She prefers bonobo to chimpanzees, who have so far dominated our myths of ancestral lineage, but, when Angier chooses, the chimpanzee, too, has lessons to teach us: half her offspring, it turns out, have not been sired by the resident male. Female promiscuity is species-efficient and canny: ‘The females of the group didn’t rely on sex “finding” its way to them; they proactively left the local environs, under such conditions of secrecy that not even their vigilant human observers knew they had gone, and became impregnated by outside males.’ There is no relationship for women between monogamy and building the nest.
Angier is at her best in debunking this type of conservative sexual myth. For example, who ever said that women are closer than men – that is, genetically, biologically, naturally closer – to their mothers? ‘A son, in fact, may rightfully be thought of as a mama’s boy: he has her X chromosome alive in every cell of his body. He has no choice – it’s the only X he’s got, and every cell needs it. Thus he has more of his mother’s genes operating in his body than he does of his father’s, thousands more ... If you do the calculations, your brother works out to be about 6 per cent more related to your mother than to your father, and he is 3 per cent more related to your mother than you are, because half your cells, on average, have the mother chromosome turned off, while all of his remain turned on.’ In other words, there is more of the mother in the boy than in the girl. ‘We are all of us strange little quilts, patches of father-tone in some of our tissues, shades of our mother in others.’ On this basis, and against her father’s boast that men contain greater genetic variety, Angier can claim that women have a more complex and interesting phylogenetic inheritance: ‘It is the woman who is the greater mosaic, a patchwork of her past ... We are more motley by far than our brothers.’
‘This book is not a dispatch from the front lines of the war between the sexes,’ Angier writes in her introduction, ‘it is a book about women.’ But is this a viable distinction? Especially when, as here and as for many feminists, it is your father who you are arguing with inside your head. ‘I have resisted this for years, writing to you as if you could hear me,’ Rich said at the start of one of several addresses to her father which punctuate her 1986 collection Your Native Land, Your Life. It is not your body, Angier concedes in a rare moment, but lived experience which will allow you to recognise the type of your father – ‘cold, aloof, angry, hyper-critical and infinitely alluring’ (compare Rich: ‘the cruelty that came inextricable from your love’) – in your sleep and to ‘keep your eyes and nose and hormones far, far away’. Fathers and patriarchy are not the same thing, although it may sometimes seem that they are. Rich: ‘For years I struggled with you ... After your death I met you again as the face of patriarchy ... there was an ideology at last which let me dispose of you ... It is only now ... that I can decipher your suffering and deny no part of my own.’ Surprisingly perhaps, it is Rich rather than Angier who appears to be suggesting that you might – just – be able to struggle against patriarchy and lay down your arms before your father at the same time.
Of the elaborate armoury of anecdote and counter-myth which Angier brings to the battlefield, the most powerful story is that of Jane Carden. Carden suffers from AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), which means that although she has a boy’s chromosomes, her body failed to issue the last-stage instructions for the building of male genitalia, leaving her, in defiance of her chromosomes, to develop in every apparent respect a girl. ‘Being androgen-deaf, Jane’s body took the course that a mammalian foetus will in the absence of androgens: it chose to go girl’ – and later woman, flush with all the insignia of femininity which, for one line of evolutionary thinking, is there simply to attract a reproductive mate. Carden, however, will not reproduce. As a young girl she was lied to and told that she had twisted ovaries at birth; she was wretched at puberty until discovering the truth about her syndrome freed her into the complexity of her history. Now she revels in her ability to appeal to and enact both sides of the divide (‘she has balls when she needs them’): ‘I’m just like my mother, an aggressive, obnoxious human being. I’m the daughter my mother created. I’m the woman I was meant to be.’ Clearly, mothers are the ancestry to lay claim to, fathers the spirits to be conjured away in the night. Angier calls this chapter ‘The Mosaic Imagination’ and remarks: ‘The healthiest and most womanly of women are ... a rendition of Amazon queens, self-possessed and self-defined, women whose bodies have an enviable integrity and a fleshy, non-replicative beauty that razzes Charles Darwin.’ For Greer these are ‘failed women’, ‘spurious females’, and the chapter of The Whole Woman in which they appear, along with mainly male-to-female transsexuals, has the title ‘Pantomime Dames’.
We might pause at that ‘self-possessed and self-defined’. Not just because it is so immediately countered by Carden’s own insistence that she is her mother’s creation, but because of the oddly self-sufficient and controlling vision of human subjectivity which the remark implies. ‘Can a woman have too much self-confidence?’ Angier asks at one point, as if, just for a second, she had suspected her own powers of praise, and the powers of and on behalf of women she is invoking and praising. After all, nobody creates or defines themselves. It is, in a way, the strangest of ideas that anyone could be, or could want to be, complete (one might express the same reservation about the title of Greer’s latest book). For the neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, who has done more than anyone to ground our mental apparatus in biology, to put the mind ‘back into nature’ (there is no mind/body dichotomy, not even in relation to fathers), it is at the point of our engagement with others – our ‘social, effective and linguistic interactions’ – that science has to withdraw. Once you are in language, ‘consciousness is not self-sufficient and beyond doubt ... it is always in dialogue with some other.’ This, he argues in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, is one of a number of reasons why ‘science fails for individual histories’:
There is no more mystery to our inability as scientists to give an explanation of an individual consciousness than there is to our ability to explain why there is something rather than nothing. There is a mystery, perhaps, but it is not a scientific one. If one stays solely with one’s own mind, the mystery rests in imagining how that particular mind arises with regard to its own history.
‘I don’t know how to measure happiness ... there is no other issue ... to think about politically, but I don’t know how to measure happiness,’ George Oppen wrote to June Oppen Degnan in 1970 (an extract from his letter is the epigraph to Midnight Salvage).
How, then, should women see themselves? As mosaics, fractured with the lines of putative and possibly regraspable pasts; as fluid, and open – like the clitoris in Angier’s most lyrically enthused chapter – to ‘multiple interpretations’ (multiple interpretations?); or bounded by confidence, self-possessed, self-defined, invincible? Do we want to feel divine? (American doctors, as Angier says, are dab hands at making women wonder why they are feeling ‘fatigued, crampy, not quite divine’.)
We are getting perilously close to the image of the ‘liberated Western woman in her pumps and smart skirt, toting a laptop en route to the airport’, whose planetary distribution via the Internet Angier offers, without a trace of irony, as one of the positive by-products (for women) of globalisation. How much should feminism borrow from the American dream? That globalisation works to the detriment of a majority of women in the world is one of the subjects on which Greer is most convincing and eloquent. For Adrienne Rich, in ‘Midnight Salvage’, the poem from which her collection takes its title, globalisation is the blindspot, the failure of vision at the heart of feminism’s reckoning with itself:
But neither was expecting in my time
to witness this : : wasn’t deep
lucid or mindful you might say enough
to look through history’s bloodshot eyes
into this commerce this dreadnought wreck cut loose
Do we want to start the celebrations when one half of the world of women, and not only women, is falling into the wreck? On the other hand, there is something self-defeating in believing, as many now seem to, that feminism must choose between the languages of celebration and of lament. Perhaps it is because this is a false distinction – the two are blood sisters – that they are so mutually provocative, with the more optimistic feminists often sounding like cheerleaders staving off a dirge (Natasha Walter’s new collection, On the Move: Feminism for a New Generation, is punctuated at regular intervals by essays sporting the title ‘You, go girl! – young women say there’s no holding back’). As Brecht once said, every time a man struggles for his family another family falls into the gutter. Struggling can be a very cruel affair. Can we envisage a world in which we could be sure that ‘ “doing well” by one, or some, was immiserating nobody’ (from the closing poem of Midnight Salvage)? Perhaps we should take an unlikely tip from evolution, which, Angier reminds us, does not strive for perfection: ‘It does not strive at all.’ Woman may be an evolutionary masterpiece, but we must not make the mistake of believing that ‘everything that is is for the best’:
I don’t know who we thought we were
That our personalities
Could resist the failures of the race
As Angier proceeds, she places more and more limits on scientific knowledge. It is one of the ways Woman: An Intimate Geography most interestingly doubles back on itself. For one persona, the aim is to redress the existing imbalance between myth or metaphor and the facts (for example, on the breast: ‘a few ounces in facts and a few tons in metaphor’). In order to make real choices about our bodies we need to be informed: ‘let us examine lactation in the cold light of morning’; ‘let us overthrow the lore, the idiocy, and the Paglian prissiness about menstruation and found a myth on reality. How and why do we bleed?’ This is an ethos which has been central to feminism. To correct the lore, to insist on the damage, to bring up from the wreckage the ‘book of myths/in which/our names do not appear’:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
(‘Diving into the Wreck’)
There is a second persona, however, which is deeply suspicious of this very impulse. When we pitch good against bad science, we need to remember, this voice cautions, that all science is bad science if it goes almighty, if it thinks it can be sure. On the uterus:
In truth, we know remarkably little about the purpose of the various opiates, chemicals, hormones and hormone precursors that the uterus secretes with such vigour ... When the endometrium ceases to wax and wane, does the secretory programme of the uterus likewise lapse into quiescence? Some experts say yes, some say no, all should probably settle with ‘don’t know’.
On the breast: ‘In sum, we don’t know what makes the aesthetic breast.’ Scientists ‘are baffled by breasts and they should be’. On the relationship between pheromones and ovulation: ‘We don’t know. We can only speculate. We must expand our imaginations backwards, forwards and outwards.’ On whether the female hormone androsenedione causes aggression: ‘Maybe or maybe not. We don’t know.’ On oestrogen: ‘We don’t yet understand it. We can’t quite control it ... It doesn’t control us, and its favourite word is maybe.’ On hormones in general: ‘a hormone does not cause a behaviour.’ That ‘we want to explain ourselves to ourselves’ may be the problem rather than the solution.
For this second voice, which becomes louder in the course of the book, it is not just that science has hitherto been used against women, dressing up unenlightened self-interest as truth. It is the claim to knowledge itself which stands in the way of our freedoms. We are, after all, subjects in language. ‘We ascribe meaning wherever and however we choose.’ This turns things round completely. Instead of fighting myth with reality, we should concede that we are all, unavoidably, in the game of interpretation: ‘Hold onto the fire of alternative interpretation.’ Angier’s call to found a ‘myth on reality’ already suggested the problem. After all, it was through poetry that Rich claimed to seize the thing itself. Ascribing meaning – or even letting oneself adrift in language – might be the first and most important choice of all. Angier’s book can be read as a plea for poetry; or even better, for a science that does not shy away from poetry, that is not ashamed of its own limits as science. Another opposition to add to the false binaries (male/female just being the most pressing) that feminism likes to skew.
Recent feminist debates unavoidably bear the scars of generational struggle – Greer v. Walter is perhaps only the loudest and most highly publicised. Rich herself, who was born in 1929, can be seen as the great feminist survivor – a term with special resonance if we remember that she is the only survivor of the late Fifties Boston trio she formed with Sexton and Plath. What is most striking and powerful about this new collection of poems is the commentary it provides on the implications for feminism – or for any politics – of the passage through time. These are poems which are ruthless in retrospect, generous in memory and self-critique. (Memory is where Edelman locates the singularity of identity and the failure of science.) It is an illusion of much contemporary feminist polemic that you either move forwards or back. Midnight Salvage is, to use its own phrase, ‘a long throat, casting memory forward’; these are poems written in a future perfect tense – ‘Sometime looking backward/into this future’; poems which pace the past (‘straining/neck and eyes I’ll meet your shadow’) in dialogue with future generations:
you who will want to know
what this was all about
Maybe this is the beginning of madness
Maybe it’s your conscience ...
as you, straining neck and eyes
gaze forward into this past:
what did it mean to you?
(‘A Long Conversation’)
On first reading, Midnight Salvage may not seem to be a feminist collection, or not perhaps of the colours usually associated with Rich. Its central question is how to be, or rather whether it is still possible to be, a radical in our time. (It also appears to be the collection in which she definitively takes her leave of the university: ‘Could not play by the rules/in that palmy place :: nor stand at lectern professing/anything at all.’) It is not addressed to men, but the poems repeatedly cite and open up conversations with men; ‘A Long Conversation’, which is the last, long poem, contains extracts from The Communist Manifesto, as well as quoting, among others, Coleridge to Wordsworth in 1799: ‘I wish/you would write a poem/addressed to those who, in consequence/of the complete failure of the French Revolution/have thrown up all hopes/of the amelioration of mankind.’ In the past Rich has argued that feminism’s revolutionary energies should not be reduced to Marxism. Here, in the face, I suspect, of its apparent failure, or rather of those rushing to celebrate its demise, Marxism, along with Brecht and the Surrealists, is restored to its place on the page.
This is not a collection that brings good news (‘you won’t get quit/of this: the worst of the new news’). Rich has never had any illusions about how much, how much of the time, is being destroyed, about the random horror of the at once deregulated and perfectly controlled systems of the modern world (‘this commerce this dreadnought wreck cut loose’). The tone here is cautious and determined; Rich writes just this side of despair – in this she could not be further from Angier, who wants to rouse us to hope through our bodies. Salvaging has become unmistakably harder; the world has become more, and more casually, brutal since Diving into the Wreck: birds are salvaged from an oil spill, Midnight Salvage is the name of a yard where an old craftsman was, accidentally, carelessly, run down. Rich is not ready – in this she might seem to come down emphatically on one side of recent feminist argument – to rejoice: ‘Had never expected hope would form itself/completely in my time’; ‘Accomplished criminal I’ve been but/can I accomplish justice here?’
None of this stops her from scavenging, however, from building up a future out of the debris of her past. In poem after poem, she invokes her radical predecessors, often using the second person pronoun. (Nearly every poem in the collection is an address.) Against all the odds, against the temper of the time (Coleridge to Wordsworth: ‘an almost epicurean/selfishness, disguising the same/under the soft titles of domestic attachment/and contempt for visionary philosopher’) she calls up the inheritance to which she insists we can still – those of us who want to – lay claim. ‘Crane hallucinated Edgar Allan Poe in the New York subway,’ she writes in a note to ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’: ‘I conjure Crane, Miles Davis, Muriel Rukeyser, Julia de Burgos and Paul Goodman, or their descendants.’ Poems are dedicated to René Char and Tina Modotti. On the page the poems are mosaics of quotes, all the voices running to and from each other (the poetic equivalent, one could say, of Angier’s patchworks, mosaics and quilts). Surviving, moving forwards through time, depends – these poems suggest – on how you layer your past identifications, on who is there for you to seize and conjure up in your mind. The truly unsalvageable is a city without memory where ‘nothing’s/forgiven ... but almost everything’s/forgotten,’ and where a woman, crammed with memory which no one else wants, lies ‘scabbed with rust’, her tale untold: ‘no one left/ to go around gathering the full dissident story’ (‘Rusted Legacy’).
You can build your own lineage, Rich seems to be saying (c.f. Angier: ‘our lineage is more flexible than we thought’). Inheritance, for the purposes of argument, is not just in the genes. Once you are in history, ancestry ceases to be a given: ‘it’s the layers of history/we have to choose.’ Memory is not exactly the site of freedom, but the layering of identity and memory is the only basis for moving forward through time – perhaps flimsy foundations can be a good thing. There is, of course, a limit and that limit is language or poetry itself, ‘A Long Conversation’ ends: ‘charred, crumpled, ever-changing human language/is that still you?’ Like language, memory is, and should be, finally beyond anyone’s control. Taking possession – taking possession of our bodies – might be impossible (both the first and last thing feminism should do). If language is circumscribed by doubt, is there a way of placing that reality at the heart of our politics? Keep language, and time, open: ‘It’s not the déjà vu that kills/it’s the foreseeing’ (‘Letters to a Young Poet’). We should be suspicious of our drive to quantify and calibrate: ‘I don’t know how to measure happiness’.
Rich is crafting her political and poetic past, but there is always something in language that arrives uninvited or that escapes: ‘All kinds of language fly into poetry, like it or not’ (‘A Long Conversation’). This last line describes the overcrowding of these poems, all the carefully chosen voices jostling to speak. But Rich is not, as I see it, using poetry to qualify the political will: she is giving us the sketch for a form of politics which would allow the unpredictable shape of language its place. Feminism might gain much from her vision of resoluteness and randomness combined. Why are the two always seen as somehow compromising each other? What would a politics look like which accepted both at the same time?
In one of her earliest poems, ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’, Rich wrote: ‘a thinking woman sleeps with monsters.’ Though not exactly monsters, it is something frightening and unpredictable which, in this last collection, she conjures up from the deep. Remarkably, she can do this while also making a plea for historical accountability. To argue, as many have, that the layering of the poetry mutes or mellows her political statements seems to miss the point – nothing softens here. Contra some recent voices, feminism is no more at the end than it is back at the beginning of its task. It should go on asking for too much, or rather for things which have often seemed politically incompatible, even to feminism itself: to struggle for justice and go into the dark while also holding onto the immeasurable nature of happiness.