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A Reading of Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” and Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly”

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A Reading of Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” and Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly”

I believe in a feminism that lets me choose how I name myself. The work of the 2nd wave feminists is incredibly powerful to me.  Their vision for women is strong and compelling, and their love for women is inspiring. The word “woman” becomes problematic in our day and age, or at least for me. Biologically, I might be female. I have the ability to bear children, but, by choice, I don’t think I ever will. I have breasts; if I didn’t have to have them, I wouldn’t. They feel unnecessary. I menstruate; it hurts, my body cramps, and I don’t understand why I have to bleed if I don’t believe in having children.

            My biology and phenotype predispose me to a certain level of expectation about what I think and what I will do with my life and my body. My feminism does not rely on my body. It might be influenced by my body in that I believe it is important to embrace my body and not let the media and popular culture devalue my body, but my body does not wholly inform my feminism. Just because I appear to be “female” or “woman” does not mean that I love children, or that I love shopping, and it does not determine my sexual preferences.

I embrace the term woman, though it may be problematic, as homage to my mother, to my grandmothers, to my aunts, and all those women that came before me. They had to fight to make a space for me to question what it means to be a woman, what it means to be gendered.  They fought against being poor, under-educated, and “female” to give me and the rest of the women in my family the opportunity to determine for myself how I will be named. They are still fighting; they have scraped the bottom to give me the privilege to sit here and write this paper instead of being out in the work force. So because of that, I cannot and will not dispose of the word “woman.”

My mother told me from a very young age that I had to work hard in school so that I could go to college and get a good job, and she told me that I could do whatever I wanted. She told me I had to be independent and couldn’t rely on anyone but my family for anything. I still hold on to this conviction today, and because of this I do not feel like I am an activist. I do not try to inform other people’s opinions about what it means to be “woman,” because I am not them. They have experiences and histories that I can never fully know or understand and because of that, I cannot change them. I am political in the sense that I believe I am a solo actor in the world. I do not rely on any communities beyond my family for support. I am a free agent, and it would not be fair for me to try to say that I understand what individuals from other social locations believe or that they need to be like me. I am independent, self-sufficient.

My social location is primarily informed by my socio-economic status, not by my “femininity,” or lack thereof. I am a white, working class daughter of a chainsaw salesman and registered nurse. I live in a back-woods area of Pennsylvania that is known for being infamously conservative and religious. I know how to hunt, drive a pick-up truck, and operate a chainsaw. My culture does not fit into the “acceptable” expectation that exists at Haverford and Bryn Mawr for my phenotype of “white female.” I felt the same way at my high school. People assumed that because I was a white girl at a boarding school I was paying for all of it. I was on full scholarship.

I do not necessarily fit in at “home” either. There still exists an out-dated expectation of “femininity” there. I do not want a boyfriend, I do not want to have children, and I do not want to stay there for the rest of my life. Two of my best friends from middle school already have children; one of them has two little girls. They are barely 20 and 21 years old. One of them has a high school diploma, and one does not. I was talking to my father on the phone the other day and I was joking around and said that I would come home and run for school board, and he got quiet suddenly and said, “Don’t come back here. Maybe that was my mistake.” I could have cried.

This might be part of why I tend to work best on my own. I do not feel like I need to work within the cultures that I barely exist in. I can create my own culture, my own name. It is woman, but it is not woman. It is woman because of the history of my women, my family who fought for me. It is not woman because I am a woman by body mostly, but my gender does not fit neatly into the binary that our society prescribes. The people that I love understand me and understand what I value. The people that don’t know me don’t know me and that is how it will probably stay. So as a woman living through the 3rd wave of feminism, I suppose it would be fair to say that I have my pinky toe in the 2nd wave, but most of my existence is precariously situated in the 3rd wave.

Feminism and poetry are not always thought of in the same arena, or at least I only just learned that there was something that existed as “feminist poetry.” What we might think of as feminism, we might not call poetry; conversely, what we might think of as poetry, we might not call feminist. One is politically charged and one is thought of as lofty and artistic. Sometimes, we experience things that we might not call either, per se. However, poetry can come from anything. Poetry can result from the fear in a mother’s eyes, the pleasure of sex, a car crash, a good cup of coffee, and the list could go on.

What could be called feminist also eludes a rigid definition.  I have my own definition of feminism, others have theirs. For some people, feminism is loving and respecting women, a more second wave approach. For others, feminism might be having the opportunity or ability to question their gender or gender role, a more third wave approach. Feminism has entered an era in which the only distinctive qualification for a feminist politics is rejecting or questioning a system in which all people do not have the same opportunities. Feminism and poetry can inhabit the same sphere, if an individual wants them to. Both represent an opportunity for an individual to express themselves freely, to interpret their experiences in a way that is not limited.

Poetry is thought of traditionally as a representation or translation of experience into words. One can write poetry about anything because they experience it in some way or another and they have their own way of transforming their experience into a window for an audience to understand. They find their own way of arranging phrases, making sounds, and creating meaning that re-enacts the reality they once were a part of. Poetry is an account of something personal in a personal way. Poetry can speak for that person’s individual experience.

Just because someone writes a poem with some particular intention or direction, however, does not determine the reader’s interpretation of it. That is part of what makes poetry such an important medium. I could read one particular word as this integral part of the reading of the poem with a strong allusion to a historical event. Someone else might say that word means absolutely nothing to me and makes the poem sound ridiculous.  Reading poetry is almost entirely subjective. A poem might evoke a significant emotion from me because it makes me think of an experience I had that changed my life. The same poem might be read by another person and it might make them think of when their mother died. People make careers out of reading and criticizing poetry. Poetry creates endless realities.

When I hear “feminist poetry,” I do not think of it as political poetry. Poetry can be controversial, poetry can be inspirational, but poetry itself does not invoke change. Political poetry does not feel like it can exist. Poetry is a medium that leaves doors open for individuals to come in and take what they may. A poem cannot tell you what it wants you to take away from your experience of reading it. It would not be a poem if it had an agenda. Then it would be a Newsweek article or a column in the New York Times. A reader can make a political inference from a poem for their own purposes, but as it has been mentioned before, another person might read the same thing and find it entirely blasphemous or frivolous.

Reading poetry as feminist depends on your definition of feminism.  Just because a poem is by a woman or about a woman does not make it feminist. My definition of feminism also does not make a poem not-feminist. I might read something and think, “Hm. This doesn’t necessarily speak to me as feminist, but I’m sure someone else might think that this is a feminist poem.” It goes back to the practice of reading poetry: entirely subjective.

“Lifting Belly” by Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” present complicated examples of poetry by women writers. Stein’s “Lifting Belly” is infamous for its unclear and deceptive illustration of lesbian love-making. Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” are a series of twenty-one poems in free verse that are very similar to traditional Petrarchan sonnet form, but adhere much less to the strict form of the sonnet. Stylistically, these two works are incredibly different. Stein’s words resemble a stream of consciousness that goes on for pages and pages that only indicate the subject through suggestion and evocation of feeling. Rich’s words are a clearly coherent series of poems that paint a realistic image of a woman’s love for another woman. The “Love Poems” and “Lifting Belly” represent a lesbian position. Rich and Stein both have emotional, physical, and intellectual relationships with women. Rich’s “Love Poems” were written while she was in a very passionate relationship with another woman, and Stein’s long-term relationship with Alice B. Toklas has become a historical presence in the world of lesbianism.

When I first read “Lifting Belly,” it didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t understand if it was supposed to make sense or not, or if I just didn’t have the experience to read it properly. I tried to de-code the words that did not connect, tried to comprehend the story that I thought Stein was trying to tell. While I was trying to go through this process of reading and interpreting that I thought I needed to go through to understand the poem, I noticed that I just liked the way it sounded. I thought, “I wish I could understand this, but it certainly sounds nice.” I knew that Gertrude Stein was a lesbian, and I could not help but think “lifting belly, lifting belly… what could that mean?” I put two and two together, and eventually gathered that “lifting belly” was a relatively direct reference to love-making.

Class comes the next day and everyone is disgruntled that they could not understand the poem. It was incoherent to them. I had liked it, but just thought I was not able to understand it. We went on to talk about the break-down of the poem: that it was not meant to have a story behind it. “Lifting Belly” was meant to be read for sound, for the visceral, intuitive effect. It made me like it even more. “Lifting Belly” felt welcoming to me. My initial reaction was not repulsion by the fact that there was no story or that she was not giving me a clear view into her world. I did not need it. The fact that it was missing periods, commas, phrases, or any structure whatsoever made me feel more comfortable with it. “Lifting Belly” does not fit into any form in the academy, and neither do I. By no means do I intend to link myself and my experience with Stein’s work and with “Lifting Belly” on the same level because we are different people, different readers, and different writers. As a predominantly 3rd wave feminist, however, reading Stein made me feel at ease.

Stein was not a political woman, but her work often gets put into a canon of lesbian work. It gets lumped in with the supposedly “political” or “feminist” poetry because she was emotionally, physically, and intellectually involved with another woman. I do not think, however, that she would have been interested in having her work included in women’s, lesbian, or feminist anthologies. I do not think she would have seen a need for them. I do not believe that Stein rooted her work in being a “woman” and would not have wanted her poems being used to reinforce an agenda that is derived from reclaiming some “womanhood” from the patriarchy. I think Stein and her work existed in a realm that surpassed traditional gender roles. Stein is accessible to me in that sense; she seems to have been invested in just doing her own thing, which I appreciate.

Adrienne Rich, however, was adamantly political which complicates how I have read her work. The collection that her “Twenty-One Love Poems” is published in is called The Dream of a Common Language. This is the first true sign of her 2nd wave feminist status. The Dream of a Common Language: presumably the dream that all “women” could use a common language. This is one of the frequently contested issues of radical feminism. The idea that all women could band together under a universal feminism has been hotly debated in contemporary feminist circles. Universal feminism assumes that women want to lay down their social position, abandon their cultural distinctiveness, and that women can just all of a sudden reach across racial, ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and other boundaries. It is a relatively condescending and privileged perspective that is typically only wielded by predominantly upper middle-class, white women. In other words, these are the only women that are able to look down from their cultural pedestal and presume that black women, poor women, and lesbians want to join them in their the struggle against the patriarchy.

The idea of a universal feminism also glosses over and over-simplifies the term “woman.” What it means to be “woman” is indefinitely variable from social location to social location. “Woman” is also problematic because of the gendered connotations that linger in the societal expectations for “women.” In other words, woman is an exclusionary term for many and reinforces a binary system of gender: it becomes “man” vs. “woman.”

I found that there is not a way to read Rich’s “Love Poems” though in a way that does not necessarily implicate or necessitate a 2nd wave feminist lens. She uses many particularly interesting methods that make for a well-done poem; I liked her poems. She grounds the poems in an interesting urban context that gives them a gritty flavor. However, her feminism is not compatible with mine. Readers from a non-radical-feminist location might find her intentions off-setting if they struggle like I do with the word “woman,” and might find that Rich’s poems draw too heavily on the identification with a gendered body.

Both poets use particularly interesting mechanical techniques as well that problematize the traditional male subject/female object form of poetry of the academy. Clearly, Stein rejects the use of logical sequence, punctuation, and literal interpretation in “Lifting Belly.” In addition, she switches the pronouns that she uses which are often read as a means of reinforcing the idea of a strong mutuality between the subjects interacting in the poem.[i]

Rich is particularly intentional with the use of metaphor in the “Love Poems.” Traditional sonnets of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean form frequently fetishize or disembowel parts of the object’s body. Rich makes use of a literal image of her lover’s hands in lieu of disembodying them with a metaphor; she grounds the image in real life as well by placing them in a context of action or motion. In addition, throughout the series Rich is conscientious about avoiding idealizing or romanticizing her lover and the context they exist in. She embraces the authenticity of human experience and avoids using metaphor as the “high cultural equivalent of the air brush.”[ii]

This was particularly powerful from my perspective because of her valuing of something “real,” or authentic. It is problematic in a post-modern sense to essentialize something as “genuine”; to call something genuine assumes that we are able to fully know something. There is no way to have complete knowledge of something, according to post-modern rhetoric. I would have to say that that is valid to a certain extent. For example, I can’t know what it’s like to be a black woman because I am not a black woman. But I know what it’s like to be myself. Many post-modern theorists would probably find this to be problematic in Rich’s work, but I find it integral to the work. Rich shows she respects her lover’s existence in itself, and wants to show her lover that she values her for what she is.

Rich takes us in the “Floating Poem” beyond the sight of the viewer or subject with she and her lover’s celebration of touch over sight. This is an example of Rich’s endeavor to make her language acts and body acts one in the same. The poem itself is about she and her lover having sex and because of the highly mutual context of the poem, Rich eliminates distance between her and her lover. This calls into play the feminist politics of “the gaze.” Jane Hedley praises Rich’s active search of her lover’s body, and the ways in which she avoids the traditional subject/object interaction. She calls it a “feminist alternative.”[iii]

Hedley’s presentation of the “feminist alternative” creates the issue of then having a feminist/non-feminist dichotomy which is where some of the issues with 2nd wave feminism lies. Are non-feminists then unable to appreciate or understand this work? 2nd wave feminism’s concept of “the gaze” relies on the assumption that the male viewer objectifies the female object and exploits her. This, in turn, is rooted in the notion of a gender binary.

That her “feminist alternative” is also derived from closing the gap between body and language acts is problematic for me and my feminism. Hedley’s “feminist alternative” is based in the interaction of “female” bodies. My feminism is informed by the body, but not defined by it. It feels limiting, therefore, that Rich accounts so heavily for feminism through the body. The bodies of her and her lover become the symbol of feminism in the poem and effectively shut out any number of readers who may not necessarily find that the body is determinant of gender, and therefore, proximately of feminism.

Penelope Engelbrecht stakes the claim when thinking of creating a “lesbian textuality”[iv] that lesbians cannot exist within the subject/object system. The subject/object system relies on the idea of there being a male subject with a female object. Lesbians confound the system, and because lesbians cannot occupy the subject or object position without contradicting the binary they must exist outside of the patriarchy. It follows Engelbrecht claims, that if lesbians are outside of this polarity, they must not exist. Lesbians do exist, though, so they must exist through a system that follows a new procedure.[v]

There is literally no physical difference between the women; there is no physical hierarchy that would exist in a heterosexual or male/female interaction. The interaction does not rely on the heterosexual search for “unification” or that neither “half” is complete without the other. Lesbian Desire has no physiological difference; neither lesbian is less of a person because she is seeking a physical union. The goal, Engelbrecht says, is to develop a model that does not rely on rigid or “absolute” categories.[vi] The new model relies on interaction or exchange in lieu of category. It calls for a more “fluid” idea of identity.[vii]

Touch or tactile sensation has an elevated status in the two works. They play different roles, however. In the “Love Poems,” the touch becomes an inversion of the traditional “gaze” of poetry[viii], and works against the typical distance that is maintained between subject and object within the patriarchal model that Engelbrecht describes. Rich still operates within the category-based subject/object system. Stein’s narrowing of the gap between language and experience, based in the system rooted in Engelbrecht’s “Desire” is a result of “Desire” or the mutuality and fusing of the formerly subject/object binary. Those interacting in “Lifting Belly” border on being one.[ix]

“Lifting Belly” breaks down the presence of gender in the poem by re-infusing it with a surging mutuality or emphasis on interaction, as opposed to Rich’s emphasis on subverting and revising patriarchal language with emphasis placed on lesbian interaction as a political alternative to heterosexuality. “Lifting Belly” is can be read through a system that is not situated opposite the male-dominated subject/object system, but outside of it, not relevant to it. This new model works out of the concept of exchange, not attempting to re-infuse or take back the subject position in an out-dated, ideologically restrictive model.[x]

So “Lifting Belly” gets the post-modern seal of approval for disregarding gender and resituating the ways in which the reader interprets the work. But how practical is writing in the form Stein chooses? Engelbrecht says that to produce the model she describes in the essay might require a significant amount of “authorial intrusion.”[xi] To reproduce a work with a similar dynamic would require such a conscious, intentional effort, or at least if I were to sit down and try to recreate a “Lifting Belly”-esque poem. We circle back to the practice of poetry reading and writing: everything is subjective. Unfortunately, “Lifting Belly” probably pushes many people away because of the fact it “doesn’t make any sense” to them.

The theory behind “Lifting Belly” is highly abstract, and frankly, in order to read it the same way Engelbrecht does assumes a certain amount of privileged education. Someone that barely has a high school diploma is not going to understand “Lifting Belly” as a challenge to create a Lesbian Subjectivity. This is the frustration I find myself with after reading Engelbrecht’s essay. Yes, 3rd wave feminism or post-modernism seeks to understand that our identities are complex, constructed, and that we need to break down a gender binary, but that feels so classist to me.

When it is all said and done, I feel myself drawing back from both works. “Twenty One Love Poems” are too deeply linked to the essence of the body. “Lifting Belly” is an abstraction of something real (I am aware that what is “real” is debatable, but I am going to disregard post-modern rhetoric right now) that probably leaves so many people out of a full reading of it. As a woman/not-woman, I find myself where I started: alone, seemingly straddling two worlds. I do not know if I want to be fully included in one or the other though 2nd wave feminism tells me that we are all the same and we need to unite under the same banner. I tell 2nd wave feminism that they do not know me. 3rd wave feminism tells me nothing is real, everything is a construction. I tell 3rd wave feminism, I am real, and do not tell me that my existence is a figment of society’s imagination. I have my own feminism; it is mine. It is not like Adrienne Rich’s; and it is not like the lack thereof for Gertrude Stein. Once again, I am stranded, but I do not mind.

[i] Penelope J. Engelbrecht, "'Lifting Belly Is a Language': The Postmodern Lesbian Subject," Feminist Studies 16, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 101, (accessed December 12, 2008).

[ii] Jane Hedley, "'Old Songs with New Words': The Achievement of Adrienne Rich's 'Twenty-One Love Poems,'" Genre 23, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 345.

[iii] Ibid., 347.

[iv] Penelope J. Engelbrecht, "'Lifting Belly Is a Language': The Postmodern Lesbian Subject," Feminist Studies 16, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 90, (accessed December 12, 2008).

[v] Ibid., 90.

[vi] Ibid., 91.

[vii] Ibid., 93.

[viii] Jane Hedley, "'Old Songs with New Words': The Achievement of Adrienne Rich's 'Twenty-One Love Poems,'" Genre 23, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 347.

[ix] Penelope J. Engelbrecht, "'Lifting Belly Is a Language': The Postmodern Lesbian Subject," Feminist Studies 16, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 103, (accessed December 12, 2008).

[x] Ibid., 89.

[xi] Ibid., 93.


Love Poems's picture

Interesting and inspiration

Interesting and inspiration take on feminism.

Shreya Sanghani's picture

very thought provoking.

very thought provoking.