Poem “X”

In poem ‘X’ of Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich explores the idea that her lover’s dog has been spying on their affair.

In poem ‘X’ of Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich explores the idea that her lover’s dog has been spying on their affair.

Your dog, tranquil and innocent, dozes through

our cries, our murmured dawn conspiracies

our telephone calls. She knows—what can she know?

If in my human arrogance I claim to read

her eyes, I find there only my own animal thoughts:

that creatures must find each other for bodily comfort

Though the poem’s preoccupation is not so much with the dog’s  actual surveillance, the lines nevertheless exhibit distinctively conspiratorial patterns of thought. The dog only seems “tranquil and innocent” and the speaker suffers from doubts about the distribution of knowledge through her immediate social space. What does the dog really know? This anxiety presents itself to the reader immediately after the trope of underwater secrecy in the previous poem in the series: the poet refers to her lover’s “silence today” being “a pond where drowned things live / I want to see dripping and brought into the sun.” The conspiracy theorist, according to Adrian Wisnicki (appropriating Žižek) appears in social and literary history as “the subject who tries to know.”

Conspiratorial thought isn’t commonly associated with such intimate social spaces, and there is a historical tendency to think of the conspiracy in socio-political terms, more often than not as a pathology of the social body. But the word itself, conspiracy, derives from with and breathing: it descends, etymologically, from the activity of breathing together, and a history of conspiracy as the secret association of plotters in particular spaces—drinking establishments and discussion clubs, the “radical underworld” of the C18 described by Iain McCalman. And lovers breathe together, in those “dawn conspiracies” that Rich mentions, third in a sequence of physiological actions: dozing (with its connoted exhalations) and the “cries” which may be the expression of disagreement or passion. Given the development of the poems, from the rush of intimacy to the suggestion of separation, those “murmured conspiracies” may be liable to betrayal. Luc Boltanski notices the intense scrutiny of everyday objects (dust, footprints, notes) that define the detective and the the “paranoid” subject, both of which appeared in public consciousness around the end of the C19. Doesn’t the erotic tradition of the sonnet form pay similar attention to the lips, nose, mouth, tongue of the poem’s object?

The collection in which the twenty-one love poems were (re)published is The Dream of a Common Language (1978). The dog’s presence at dawn by the bedside recalls another piece of anxious writing about the possibility of inter-species communication. Jacques Derrida’s essay, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” opens with another bedroom scene: the philosopher finds himself naked and confronted by his cat’s arch gaze.

I have trouble repressing a reflex dictated by immodesty. Trouble keeping silent within me a protest against the indecency. Against the impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see. […] It is as if I were ashamed, but also ashamed for being ashamed.

He wonders, if animals could respond to us, what form would the communication would take. Not speech, but some animal expression which would not express the species, but the cat itself. The object of Derrida’s enquiry is not to conceive of a feline language—what the cat would say if it could speak. It is to question what would be a reciprocity between species, an understanding implicit in meeting the gaze of the cat and for comprehension to take place.

Donna Haraway approves of Derrida’s question, but not of his failure to consider the wealth of fieldwork done in animal behaviour. In When Species Meet, she cites Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, and Barbara Smuts as examples of people who know how to look at and be with animals. Smuts studied Baboons in Kenya, where she learned to abandon the empirical techniques of observation so entrenched in the histories of material science and anthropology. “Smuts had been advised to be as neutral as possible, to be like a rock, to be unavailable, so that eventually the baboons would go on about their business as if data-collecting humankind were not present.” Eventually, though, “Smuts recognized that the baboons were unimpressed with her rock act. They frequently looked at her, and the more she ignored their looks, the less satisfied they seemed.”

Rich’s dream of a common language isn’t just one that permits equal exchange between men and women, old and young; across intimate, social, and political space. Here at least she looks at the dog and recognizes through such looking the presence of “animal thoughts” and seems to remember a level of awareness beneath the speech of conspiratorial thought and telephone conversations, that of physical comfort, or the “tenderness” of the poem’s last line, without which “we are in hell.” The conspiracy that the poem celebrates, is between lovers and their “companion” species, and their breathing together.

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