Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Adrienne Rich

Posted as part of the Blank Noise Blog-a-thon


There is a cop who is both prowler and father

he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac's sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
He knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
And if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
And if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
Your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
Will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

The first time I read 'Rape', I wasn't too impressed by it. The starting seemed confused and off the point, some of the repetition seemed contrived and there was a general sense of clunkiness to the poem, the sense that things didn't quite fit. Rich, I thought, was capable of so much better than this.

Over the years, though, I've found myself haunted by this poem, forced to come back to it because every time I read some report on sexual violence or harassment the lines from this poem reassert themselves. That kind of impact, the ability of a poem to become part of the language you think in, is rare enough to force a reevaluation of the poem's merit, and my appreciation for it has deepened considerably over time. If relevance matters, if a valid test for poetry is its ability to be true in simple yet insightful ways, then this is a great poem.

There are three reasons why I think this poem works. First, because it highlights what I've come to consider the key issue in sexual harassment / violence (especially in the Indian context) - the inadequacy of institutional support. Rich dismisses the actual rapist with a single word ("maniac") [1] but chooses to focus instead on the reaction of the very person who's supposed to be protecting the victim - the policeman. Who is the real criminal here, she seems to ask, which is the real rape? No society is ever going to be able to entirely eliminate perverts and criminals from among its ranks. Therefore no system can guarantee a woman total security. What the right set of institutions can do, however is a) limit the probability of crime by enforcing strong sanctions against sexual criminals and b) contain the damage of the crime when it happens by ensuring support to and dignity of the victim. That's all that we can realistically hope for, that's all that initiatives like the Blank Noise Blog-a-thon may, just may, help to achieve. By focussing on that aspect of it, Rich draws attention to this graver, more general betrayal, and highlights, through it, the collective guilt we bear for the damage sexual violence does, our responsibility in it, the extent of our culpability.

Second, in writing about this sort of secondary victimisation, Rich manages to capture its true pathology. Line after line from this poem sums up, with a clarity tinged with bitterness, the indignities that victims of sexual crimes are subject to. Lines like "you are guilty of the crime / of having been forced" or "He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined / he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted" ring true precisely because these are arguments that we, tragically, still encounter. 'Rape' captures not only the bewilderment of finding that the very institutions you have been taught to trust, the people you grew up with, the men who are loving fathers, careful husbands, turn out to be the ones who let you down; but also the combination of machismo ("he and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash") and power ("he has access to machinery that could get you put away") that leads to that outcome.

Third, the more I think about it, it occurs to me that the very rawness of the poem, its clumsiness, its lack of fit, is a deliberate attempt to make the poem more disturbing, so that the queasiness you feel reading the poem - its "sickening light" - serves to enhance the experience it describes. This is an uncomfortable poem, but it is not a poem we can turn away from, it is not a poem we can afford to ignore.

The poem is not, of course, about street harassment (sorry, I couldn't find a poem about it, and I looked [2]), but I think the underlying ideas are still relevant, and the difference, sadly, may be more of degree than of kind.


[1] Not that Rich lets those who offend her get away so easily elsewhere. In 'The Phenomenology of Anger', she writes:

Fantasies of murder: not enough:
to kill is to cut off from pain

but the killer goes on hurting

Not enough. When I dream of meeting

the enemy, this is my dream:

white acetylene

ripples from my body

effortlessly released

perfectly trained

on the true enemy

raking his body down to the thread

of existence

burning away his lie

leaving him in a new

world; a changed


[2] the other poem I considered was an infinitely less sombre Don Marquis:

"i caught the boob in the shrubbery
pretty thing i said
it hurts me worse than it does you
to remove that left eye of yours
but i did it with one sweep of my claws
you call yourself a gentleman do you
i said as i took a strip out of his nose
you will think twice after this before
you offer an insult
to an unprotected young tabby
where is the little love nest you spoke
of i asked him
you go and lie down there i said
and maybe you can incubate another ear
because i am going to take one of
yours right off now
and with those words i made ribbons
out of it you are the guy
i said to him that was going to give
me an easy life sheltered from all
the rough ways of the world
fluffy dear you don t know what the
rough ways of the world are
and i am going to show you
i have got you out here
in the great open spaces
where cats are cats
and i m going to make you understand
the affections of a lady ain t to be
trifled with by any slicker like you
where is that red ribbon with the
silver bells you promised me
the next time you betray the trust
of an innocent female
reflect on whether she may
carry a wallop little fiddle strings
this is just a midl lesson i am giving
you tonight i said as i took
the fur off his back and you oughta
be glad you didn't make me really
angry my sense of dignity is all that
saves you a lady little sweetness
never loses her poise and i thank god
i am always a lady even if i do
live my own life and with that i
picked him up by what was left of
his neck like a kitten and laid him
on the doormat"

Not quite relevant, perhaps, but good fun.


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