Monday, May 11, 2015

Poem of the Week 5.11.15

Splittings by Adrienne Rich
My body opens over San Francisco like the day –
light raining down      each pore crying the change of light
I am not with her     I have been waking off and on
all night to that pain     not simply absence but
the presence of the past      destructive
to living here and now      Yet if I could instruct
myself, if we could learn to learn from pain
even as it grasps us      if the mind, the mind that lives
in this body could refuse      to let itself be crushed
in that grasp     it would loosen      Pain would have to stand
off from me and listen     its dark breath still on me
but the mind could begin to speak to pain
and pain would have to answer:
We are older now
we have met before     these are my hands before your eyes
my figure blotting out      all that is not mine
I am the pain of division      creator of divisions
it is I who blot your lover from you
and not the time-zones or the miles
It is not separation calls me forth      but I
who am separation      And remember
I have no existence      apart from you
I believe I am choosing something now
not to suffer uselessly     yet still to feel
Does the infant memorize the body of the mother
and create her in absence?     or simply cry
primordial loneliness?      does the bed of the stream
once diverted      mourning       remember the wetness?
But we, we live so much in these
configurations of the past      I choose
to separate her     from my past we have not shared
I choose not to suffer uselessly
to detect primordial pain as it stalks toward me
flashing its bleak torch in my eyes     blotting out
her particular being     the details of her love
I will not be divided      from her or from myself
by myths of separation
while her mind and body in Manhattan are more with me
than the smell of eucalyptus coolly burning      on these hills
The world tells me I am its creature
I am raked by eyes     brushed by hands
I want to crawl into her for refuge     lay my head
in the space     between her breast and shoulder
abnegating power for love
as women have done      or hiding
from power in her love     like a man
I refuse these givens      the splitting
between love and action      I am choosing
not to suffer uselessly      and not to use her
I choose to love      this time      for once
with all my intelligence.

I hadn't heard of Adrienne Rich until about a week ago. I don't keep up with poetry as much as I should (though anybody, I think, could say this about anything), but I supposed that's why I have poetic-minded friends to help me fill in the gaps. Though in the case of Rich, the gaps are the exact thing I want to focus on.
For a period of time, I was in a long-distance relationship that eventually proved to be more than I could handle. The intense feelings of loneliness—ascribing meaning to the pillow I'd clutch to my chest when i went to sleep, the perpetual glaze over everyone's faces because they're not the one you want to see—are not anything I'll ever forget. It's also, I think, not an emotion that many people can really capture. There are nuances involved that go beyond description. But I think Rich is able to do it. 
The way Rich uses ceasura and enjambment makes the reading of the poem unsure of itself—unsteady or timid. So when she repeats I choose not to suffer uselessly, there is no confidence behind the statement: she knows, on one hand, that she cannot control her suffering—as useless as it may seem or no—and, on the other hand, knows she is beyond the choice. The words become empty and hollow like the gaps midline, or like your chest, when you wake up and fall asleep to the disembodied voice or text of your loved one saying good morning and goodnight. The characterization of separation as pain itself—as pain that exists, necessarily, because you feel it—is a pain fully realized for what it is: relentless. The silence in an empty room is devastating, but the sound of laughter and company enjoyed heard through a window or a wall is more so: you are apart. So when Rich caps off the poem with something that could seem hopeful, we know better—she knows better, but there is a necessary amount of suspension of disbelief, of faith, or even of arrogance required to close distances. But these distances aren't the kind that can be closed, and the intimate knowledge of pain and separation is not something that can be unlearned. 
(Is it ironic that this poem was sent to me from a friend of mine currently in France?)

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