On November 17, 2007Adrienne Rich delivered the Fifteenth Annual David R. Kessler Lecture honoring her lifetime
achievements in the fields of LGBTQ Studies. Since receiving the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1951, at the age of twenty-one,
Adrienne Rich has not stopped writing in her distinct voice, with strength and conviction. Rich has said that her poetry seeks to
create a dialectical relationship between “the personal, or lyric voice, and the so-called political — really, the voice of the individual
speaking not just to herself, or to a beloved friend, but to and from a collective, a social realm.” We are honored to present this
excerpt from her lecture.
The threads that grew into the texture
of what is now known as “queer studies”
began, of course, not in academia but in
spaces opened up by the movements of
the 60s and 70s, the breaking out from
self-denial into self-definition, claiming
agency, learning solidarity, arguing a
different kind of future.
I came out in early 1970s New York
and the lesbian movement I came out
into was not a single-issue movement:
it had been shaped by radical feminism
and the Left. I’ve been thinking how
behind every shelf of publications on
gender and sexuality, every course
offered in queer or gender studies, lie
thousands of ghostly sheaves: leaflets,
letters, pamphlets, mimeographed
bibliographies, little magazines, posters,
movement anthologies, some now
preserved in archives, many reduced
to landfill. Behind every academic
program or lectureship under the
rubric of queer studies stand lives that
were participant in radical ideas about
freedom and justice—movements that
moved, in non-linear ways, into and
out of each other. In those movements,
queer women and men, unknown at first
unless to each other, invisible to their
otherwise-comrades, emerged to declare
a gay and lesbian politics, because the
idea of inclusive justice is—was then—
contagious and irresistible.
The discourse of inclusive justice
keeps refusing to be quenched. Its soul
goes marching on, stumbling, limping,
bumming rides, falling in with the
wrong crowd, losing direction, pausing
for breath, exhausted, sleeping to dream
again—maybe even winning an election
here and there.
Ideas of freedom evolve, scientific
descriptions require amplifying, histories
have to be revised. Poetry has a way of
resonating beyond its original source
moment. Maybe because poetic truths
depend not on a structure of ideas but
on a medium, not on fixed relationships
but on metaphor: lightning-flashes
of connection. Poetry is a mixed
medium: the visual image, the sound,
the unexpected relation of words to their
accepted usage, or as Ezra Pound termed
them, phanopoeia, melapoeia, logopoeia.
Consider a poem from Walt
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—not the 1855
first edition but the expanded and revised
version published in 1891—which
includes the section of “Calamus” poems,
“Whoever you are holding me now in
hand” (see sidebar, page 8).
I do not want to fix in prose this
poem at once so direct and so evasive,
ambivalent and confident. If anything
the poem decoys and dares down that
possibility. Certainly its sensuality is
heightened by its tone of warning, as
it both lures and wards off the “you”
it addresses. That “you…holding me
now in hand” is both singular and—
implicitly—plural, and “you” appears
to have made the first move: “…release
me now before troubling yourself any
further, let go your hand from my
shoulders.” But there’s an ambiguity too
about the “I/me”—which might at once
be the book, the poem and the sexual
body of the poet. “Look where your hands
are. Now.” says the voice at the end of
Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz.
The book, the poem, as erotic
companion, conspiratorial, dangerous,
demanding: “Your novitiate would even
then be long and exhausting/ the whole
past theory of your life and all conformity
to the lives around you would have to be
abandon’d.” More is required of “you”
than a quick trick, a fast read. And the
“I”—poet or poem or book—is wary,
outside the law “watching lest any person
Don’t ask me, the aged and now
celebrated Whitman is telling his public,
to clean up my book. But what is the
element always-elusive, the hinted and
guessed-at, with potential for good
and evil? If it is simply how human
sexuality is part of the greater texture
of the universe, or the impossibility of a
fixed, single identity—that was always
affirmed throughout Leaves of Grass.
I find myself wondering if what eludes
“you” isn’t also elusive to “I”—if Walt
himself isn’t speaking internally to
Walt, acknowledging what can’t yet be
imagined, even in poetry.
Maybe it is the intuition of movement
through—not beyond—sexual desire to
what he calls “amative love” to “the love
of comrades,” movement toward some
future democracy, some evolving complex
In his 1970 essay, “Changing
Perspectives on Reading Whitman,”
the poet Robert Duncan addressed
Whitman’s complex effects: “he was a
man of contradictions,” Duncan says,
“and he calls up inner contradictions in
the reader.” He suggests how superficial is any reading of Whitman as naïvely, optimistically, chauvinistic, or
as displaced by twentieth-century nightmares of exploitation and war.
Presidents, congresses, armed forces, industrialists, governors, police
forces, have rendered the meaning of “America” and “the United States” so
fearful—causing fear and filled with fear—in our time that no nationalistic
inspiration comes innocent of the greed and ruthless extension of power to exploit
the peoples and natural resources of the world…
“America,” for Whitman, is yet to come. And this theme of what America
is, of what democracy is, of what the sexual reality is, of what the Self is,
arises from an urgency in the conception of the Universe itself, not a blueprint
but an evolution of spirit in terms of variety and a thicket of potentialities…
Now consider an early poem by Duncan himself, from 1946,
“Among my friends love is a great sorrow” (see sidebar, pabe 9).
In one sense, “Among my friends” mourns a diminishment from
Whitman’s consciousness: a narrower, sadder sense of possibilities.
Duncan searches beneath the surface of a particular male sexuality in
a particular time (post-WWII America, early Cold War, rampant
homophobia.) He observes, with compassion and severity, what
was one kind of gay community, to use our contemporary language.
The sorrow pervading this gay maleness is the burden of a sexuality
ambivalent with its own desire, doubting the potentialities of mutual
love, in the face of external and internalized homophobia: “an honest
living” being the needed condition for love.
But if “Among my friends” merely documented a certain period
and a certain circle, it would not carry, as I think it does, all the way
into the twenty-first century, into a dominant culture, not necessarily
or primarily gay, where atomization and self-reference are promoted
as ways of being—the surface American scene of lifestyles, passionless
distractions, trivial choices without deep inner volition, sex without
sensuality, irony as emotional distance, money as vocabulary for
everything. Duncan was explicit not only sexually:
I picture…fulfillment of desire as a human state of mutual volition and
aid, a shared life…Not only in sexual love, but in work and in play, we
suffer from the…competitive ethos…the struggle of interests to gain recognition
or control, and discourages the recognition of the needs and interests which we
all know we have in common.
Or, as Marx had observed over a century before:
Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only
ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when it is directly
eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited etc., in short, utilized in some way…Thus all
the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple alienation
of all these senses, the sense of having.
Duncan’s poetics and philosophic vision, sophisticated, evolving,
sometimes arcane but always radical, were a journey to reclaim “all the
senses” which capitalism as a system of relationships has alienated and
The third poem I present here was published in 1973, by a
lesbian-feminist press collective in Oakland. Judy Grahn’s “A
Woman Is Talking to Death” (see sidebar, page 9) is a long poem by a
working-class lesbian. It is a lesbian poem that expanded the political
imaginary of Whitman and Duncan, enlarging the potentialities of
gay and lesbian poetry. In sometimes raw urgency, it locates its voice
in the class and race-inflected lives of everyday “common women.”
Grahn herself wrote of the poem:
The particular challenges… for me were…the criss-cross oppressions
which…continually divide us—and how to define a lesbian life within the context of other people in the world. I
did not realize at the time that I was
also taking up the subject of heroes in
a modern life which for many people
is more like a war than not, or that I
would begin a redefinition for myself of
the subject of love.
There is no “progress”—political
or otherwise—in poetry—only riffs,
echoes, conversations of many poems
and poets speaking into the future
and back toward the past. The
poems I chose to present here are
in their very different ways parts of
Robert A. Bertholf, ed. Robert Duncan: A
Selected Prose. New York: New Directions,
Judy Grahn, “A Woman Is Talking to Death”
in Works of a Common Woman. Oakland: Diana
Eugene Kamenka, ed. The Portable Karl Marx.
New York: Penguin Books Viking Portable
Justin Kaplan, ed. Walt Whitman: Poetry and
Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.
Whoever You Are Holding Me Now In Hand
Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.
Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?
The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive.
You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be
your sole and exclusive standard,
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,
The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the
lives around you would have to be abandon’d,
Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further,
let go your hand from my shoulders,
Put me down and depart on your way.
Or else by stealth in some wood for trial,
Or back of a rock in the open air,
(For in any roof’d room of a house I emerge not, nor in company.)
And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead.
But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any
person for miles around approach unawares,
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or
some quiet island,
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.
Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;
For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,
And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried
But these leaves conning you con at peril,
For these leaves and me you will not understand,
They will elude you at first and still more afterward,
I will certainly elude you,
Even while you should think you unquestionably
caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have
written this book,
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,
Nor do those who know me best who admire me
and vauntingly praise me,
Nor will the candidates for my love (unless a very
few) prove victorious,
Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just
as much evil, perhaps more,
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many
times and not hit, that which I hinted at;
Therefore release me and depart on your way.
Among My Friends Love Is
A Great Sorrow
Among my friends love is a great sorrow.
It has become a daily burden, a feast,
a gluttony for fools, a heart’s famine.
We visit one another asking, telling one another.
We do not burn hotly, we question the fire.
We do not fall forward with our alive
eager faces looking through into the fire.
We stare back into our own faces.
We have become our own realities.
We seek to exhaust our lovelessness.
Among my friends love is a painful question.
We seek out among the passing faces
a sphinx-face who will ask its riddle.
Among my friends love is an answer
to a question
that has not been asked.
Then ask it.
Among my friends love is a payment.
It is an old debt for a borrowing foolishly spent.
And we go on, borrowing and borrowing
from each other.
Among my friends love is a wage
that one might have for an honest living.
A Woman Is Talking to Death (excerpts)
Testimony in trials that never got heard
we were driving home slow
my lover and I, across the long Bay Bridge,
one February midnight, when midway
over in the far left lane, I saw a strange scene:
one small young man standing by the rail,
and in the lane itself, parked straight across
as if it could stop anything, a large young
man upon a stalled motorcycle, perfectly
relaxed as if he’d stopped at a hamburger stand;
he was wearing a peacoat and levis, and
he had his head back, roaring, you
could almost hear the laugh, it
was so real.
“Look at that fool,” I said, “in the
middle of the bridge like that,” a very
Then we heard the meaning of the noise
of metal on a concrete bridge at 50
miles an hour, and the far left lane
filled up with a big car that had a
motorcycle jammed on its front bumper, like
the whole thing would explode, the friction
sparks shot up bright orange for many feet
into the air and the racket still sets
my teeth on edge.
When the car stopped we stopped parallel
and Wendy headed for the callbox while I
ducked across those 6 lanes like a mouse
in the bowling alley. “Are you hurt?” I said,
the middle-aged driver had the greyest black face,
“I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop, what happened?”
Then I remembered. “Somebody,” I said, “was on
the motorcycle.” I ran back,
one block? two blocks? the space for walking
on the bridge is maybe 18 inches, whoever
engineered this arrogance. In the dark
stiff wind it seemed I would
be pushed over the rail, would fall down
screaming onto the hard surface of
the bay, but I did not, I found the tall young man
who thought he owned the bridge, now lying on
his stomach, head cradled in his broken arm.
He had glasses on, but somewhere he had lost
most of his levis, where were they?
and his shoes. Two short cuts on his buttocks,
that was the only mark except his thin white
seminal tubes were all strung out behind; no
child left in him; and he looked asleep.
…I wanted to
leave. And met the driver, walking back.
“The guy is dead.” I gripped his hand,
the wind was going to blow us off the bridge.
“Oh my God,” he said, haven’t I had enough
trouble in my life?” He raised his head,
and for a second was enraged and yelling,
at the top of the bridge—“I was just driving
home!” His head fell down. My God, and
now I’ve killed somebody.”
I had a woman waiting for me,
in her car and in the middle of the bridge,
I’m frightened, I said,
I’m afraid, he said, stay with me,
please don’t go, stay with me, be
my witness—“No,” I said, “I’ll be your
witness—later,” and I took his name
and number, “but I can’t stay with you,
I’m too frightened of the bridge, besides
I have a woman waiting
and no license—
and no tail lights—“
so I left—
As I have left so many of my lovers.
we drove home
shaking, Wendy’s face greyer
than any white person’s I have ever seen.
that same week I looked into the mirror
and nobody was there to testify;
how clear, an unemployed queer woman
makes no witness at all,
nobody at all was there for
those two questions: what does
she do, and who is she married to?
death sits on my doorstep
cleaning his revolver
death cripples my feet and sends me out
to wait for the bus alone
then comes by driving a taxi
this woman is a lesbian, be careful
No one will ever speak to me again.
Have you ever committed any indecent acts with
Yes, many. I am guilty of allowing suicidal women
to die before my eyes or in my ears or under my
hands because I thought I could do nothing. I am
guilty of leaving a prostitute who held a knife to
my friend’s throat to keep us from leaving, because
we would not sleep with her, we thought she was
old and fat and ugly; I am guilty of not loving her
who needed me; I regret all the women I have not
slept with or comforted, who pulled themselves
away from me for lack of something I had not the
courage to fight for, our life, our planet, our city,
our meat and potatoes, our love. These are indecent
acts, lacking courage, lacking a certain fire behind
the eyes, which is the symbol, the raised fist, the
sharing of resources, the resistance that tells death
he will starve for the lack of us, our extra. Yes I
have committed acts of indecency with women and
most of them were acts of omission. I regret them
my lovers teeth are white geese flying over me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
we are the river of life and the fat of the land
death, do you tell me I cannot touch this woman?
Hey you death
to my lovers I bequeath
the rest of my life
death, ho death
you shall be poor