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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): Adrienne Rich on the people we never get over

“Where should I put this?” a guy in my bed asked recently, having slipped his hand under my sheets and emerged holding a slim red copy of Adrienne Rich’s "The Dream of a Common Language" (1978). How sloppy of me, I thought, leaving the person I’d gone to bed with the night before still under the sheets. Then I thought, how poetic.

Dead poets, and some living, are with me in bed and in the bath and in my head as I wander through Trader Joe’s. I turn to them when I’m nervous, when I can’t slog through another scholarly article for class, when I’ve been hurt and when it occurs to me for the thousandth time that I don’t really know what I want to do with my life. This column is an ode to those questions, to our problems and to the poets who always seem to speak to them just right.

“Why do I always fall for his fake advances?” a friend texted me on Saturday night. The only bizarre thing about the question was that, for once, I wasn’t the one asking it.

I like to think that susceptibility to feeling — especially feeling something for someone — is a necessary and beautiful part of life. But maybe that’s just an attempt on my part to justify the embarrassing level of devotion I always have to at least one romantic interest (never one who deserves it). In truth, the devotion has a corollary relationship with disappointment. If deep disappointment has been inflicted one week, devotion eagerly responds to a text message the next week.

It’s the feeling of being reeled in again and again.

“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone,” Adrienne Rich writes. “No poison cup, / no penance. / Merely a notion that the tape-recorder / should have caught some ghost of us: / … this is how we tried to love, / and these are the forces they had ranged against us, / and these are the forces we had ranged within us, / within us and against us, against us and within us.”

The last line in that stanza is my favorite. I love how the antimetabole — “within us and against us, against us and within us” — entraps the reader in that human tension. Our emotions are always colliding with outside forces we can’t control, and those outside forces are always fueling our emotions.

Adrienne Rich knows the dilemma too, but in other words. The “other words” are important here because the tension she describes isn’t the helpless feeling of being reeled in yet again by an alluring line: It’s a tension raging within us, a form of power, a choice.

I think there is value in choosing wrong. If I’m going to do something I shouldn’t do — if I’m going to fall again for fake advances — I would like to sometimes own it. To say, "This is how I tried." And to hope that the voice picked up by the recorder, if not a wise one, is at least loud.