Poems & Politics: Rape - Adrienne Rich

Bethan Jenkins AM has an interesting post about rape, and the reaction to Helen Mirren's rather silly remarks about date rape.

Bethan and Helen's comments remind me of a poem I first heard read by my cousin Olwen Leavold a few years after it was published. My initial sexist reaction was bloody ridiculous, if a person has really suffered rape the last thing she would do is write a poem about it*. But Olwen reminded me of my fondness of War Poems - a catharsis for men who had suffered horrific experiences. If Wilfred Owen could write Dulce et Decorum after experiencing a gas attack - why shouldn't a woman be able to write something as moving after a rape attack?

Having been slapped down by my cousin and having looked at the poem again in that light, I think that this weeks Poems and Politics is, in fact, one of the most frightening and moving poems ever written:

Rape - Adrienne Rich

There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac's sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

*note: I was only 16 years old then :-)


  1. Now that's a tough one to comment on.

  2. This poem took me back to uni days when we studied Rich - brilliant poet. It's harrowing, as harrowing as Owen.

    Thank you for posting it - it made me think more deeply about what she was saying. Must dig out the old Rich collections and get the poetry brain cells jumping again.

  3. I really think it helps to focus and move on if you write or talk about something.

    That really is quite a powerful poem!

  4. This potent piece of experience writ,
    Is undeserving of my parodic wit.
    It's darker than dark, but still quite clear,
    That it's written through knowledge, doubt and fear.
    It calls beyond a cry or plea,
    And needs no parody from me.
    I read it twice and thought a bit.
    That really is some heavy shit.

  5. Your average copper is just an ordinary lower middle-class or working class boy just doing a job, I suspect they often trivialise or compartmentalise it because they cannot comprehend or compartmentalise it within their own experiences. I think this poem makes it clear that all sexual assault should be dealt with by specialised personnel.

  6. Years ago I employed a woman who'd been the pioneering sergeant in charge of the first specialised rape suite in town. Her experience of trying to get any of her police colleagues to take it seriously was so abysmal that she left the force. I don't see that it's changed - what with only a 4% conviction rate (or so I seem to recall). And now victims are held to be responsible if they've had a drink.

    In no other area of law I can think of is the victim held responsible for criminal activities against themselves. Where is the line...? You took your epilepsy drugs and were woozy that's why the mugger attacked you? You were on mind-fogging anti-depressants - you made it easy for the con artist to enter your house and rob you?

    Seems to me that increasingly and across the board our society is making us responsible citizens us even more responsible for the actions of criminal others whilst letting the irresponsibles off with lighter and lighter sentences.

    Apropos police brains. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary officially wrote in their report earlier this year about the -verbatim- incompetence and bovine stupidity of frontline officers.

    You know that you can get into the force with no paper qualifications at all? You can get in with criminal convictions even.