Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012) started a relationship with Michelle Cliff, Jamaican-born novelist and editor, in 1976. The following year Rich published a pamphlet, “Twenty-One Love Poems” and her later poems and socio-political essays, notably “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, explored her sexuality. Like the poems in Rich’s pamphlet, Weiss’s poems are numbered rather than titled and kept short (Rich’s were around 12 to 16 lines, Weiss keeps hers in 10 line couplets).
The first poem gives the pamphlet its title,
“How could they miss a jolt of that magnitude?
The heat, surfacing. My heart an empty
car, more dust than air, skidding
off the track of my life. The morning
no longer my own. A crush of commuters
and not one hurled helter-skelter”
Love surfaces in unexpected moments and spins the narrator’s life out of control, flooding her emotions and she gives in to desire. The narrator makes a choice though, instead of continuing her day as planned, she gets off at the next station. An action of someone who doesn’t trust fate to intervene and enable her path to cross with her crush’s at a later date. Or perhaps there’s an impulsiveness which lets her heart overrule her head.
Weiss left America for Spain and the second poem asks questions of language, “Who needs translation when our bodies/ speak a thousand different languages,// all of them born of the same tongue?”. The poem ends,
“I write estuary on a napkin. Bursting,
I watch you eat, smile for a lack of language.”
Most of our communication is non-verbal, even when both people in a conversation share the language(s) being spoken. When love heightens the senses, the narrator finds herself able to sense devotion in non-verbal clues, in body language, in a shared breakfast, in watching someone relax and open up in her presence.
There’s an extra dimension this relationship too: how far they are able to show their affection in public. Poem VIII details an incident that took place in London where a group of young men demanded a lesbian couple kiss and assaulted them when the couple refused to comply. There was no guarantee that the assault would not have happened if the couple did comply and, if they did comply, how much further the demands would have gone because they would not have stopped at just one kiss. The narrator remembers her morning lovemaking, wants to write a poem, and then learns of the assault.
“There’s no metaphor sublime enough
to embody this morning’s lovemaking.
Or maybe I’m outraged by the pornography
of the crime. The way words can bruise,
crumple. Bleed across a moment of bliss.”
The imagery of love being sullied by bullies is revisited in poem XIV,
“the stories inside better off silenced.
The distant cry of a siren, or is that
the maimed animal inside my chest
unfurling under the balm of your breath?
My cursor pulses. I’m trying to capture
something that eluded me, the miracle
of your tongue spilling electric over mine
as a leer of ruffians gathered.”
The poems circle back to the beginning, that first fateful glance, in XX (te quiero translates as I love you),
“Extraordinary, how the planets colluded
to lure us onto the same wrong train. How
you melted the scrap heap of my past
in one sizzling glance. Te quiero, you say,
and mean it. A wail sends us hurtling.
How our children will continue this poem.”
The poem suggests the love will last and grow, despite the chancey beginning of a meeting on a train that might not have happened.
“In “The Jolt”, Weiss has succeeded in producing a homage to Rich. The poems are sensual, layered and unsentimental about love and connections it forges from its serendipitous beginning to its lasting legacy.
“The Jolt: Twenty-one Love Poems in Homage to Adrienne Rich” is available from Bottlecap Press.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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