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“This Poem Which is Not Your Language:” Jewishness, Translation, and the Historical Philosophy of Adrienne Rich, 1968-1991


The long and prolific career of lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich has been evaluated by readers and critics for the significant stylistic shifts that accompanied Rich’s increasing political awareness, radicalism, and calls to action in both poetry and prose. Rich’s Jewish life, however, has been relatively understudied. This essay argues that Rich’s Jewish engagement played a critical part in developing her historical philosophy: one that rejects the universal while reaching beyond the particular, embraces an oppositional Jewish history while refusing Jewish suffering as proprietary, and demands a critical evaluation of the complicated inheritance of Holocaust memory and its role in assimilating Jewish life into mainstream U.S. national consciousness. Questions of history raised by Rich’s mid-career turn to her Jewishness—what I call her Jewish era, the 1980s— also bring to the surface the impossibility of her own desire to translate one historical moment into the next. In two parts, I examine how Rich’s Jewishness and translational experiments shaped a resistance poetics based in Jewish messianism, feminist critique, and queer embodiment to imagine new possibilities for reading and writing the past, present, and future.

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