Trying to Talk with a Man About Nuclear Armageddon: Adrienne Rich & the Nuclear Gothic

Nuclear holocaust–
Last year’s nightmare, this year’s dream.
A mushroom cloud blooms.

An appropriate, and if not appropriate then humorous, subtitle for Adrienne Rich’s poem “Trying to Talk with a Man” would have been “or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Admit My Relationship Has Failed.” And, much like Kubrick’s film (of a similar title), Rich’s poem deploys Cold War phraseology to interrogate her subject matter. In Rich’s case, the dissolution of a (presumably) romantic relationship. Throughout the poem, Rich uses the lexicon of bomb-angst to explicate the ultimate confrontation she–or, rather, her speaker–sees looming on the horizon: “blot it out,” “danger,” “emergency,” “magnitude,”… the list goes on. Whatever her intentions were in doing this, the effect it creates is striking. The shifting power dynamics within the relationship described in the poem are equated to the existential threat posed by the atom bomb, that ultimate symbol of Cold War neuroses.

But the figure of the bomb itself is merely a fetish, both in the poem and the society that spawned it. Fears of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviets and the American mythos of Communist infiltration, the homosexual agenda, and Black militancy are one and the same. Mainstream American society has always craved destruction through the Other. It is the (not so) secret, libidinal drive that compels it to rape and pillage the world. The feminist read here is almost trivially easy: America is a patriarchal society driven by the same base desires that drive every man from the age of eleven to the grave.

With “Trying to Talk with a Man,” Rich very well may have inaugurated a new literary mode; nuclear Gothic. Crumbling castles and miasmic moors have been replaced by desolate deserts and atomic annihilation, but the throbbing psychosexual core remains the same. “Out here I feel more helpless with you than without you.”: the lover’s dream of reconciliation sours in the desert heat. Tensions mount. “Your dry heat feels like power,” the speaker says. The only thing keeping the pair from one another’s throats is the knowledge that, as P. F. Sloan sang in Barry McGuire’s voice, “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”

The final stanza, which reads “talking of the danger as if it were not ourselves as if we were testing anything else” collapses the atomic metaphor the poem builds from from its opening. Rich is essentially declaring that, no, she is not really talking about The Bomb, at least not in terms of kilotons. Rather, she is, as I have already explained, using it–and the culture of angst and apprehension that grew up around it–to frame a deeply personal interaction.

Having exhausted the nuclear imagery of the poem, I turn now to the desert motif that occurs and re-occurs throughout. Obviously, the “action” of the piece is set in a desert, though to reduce the desert figure to mere set dressing would be to ignore a great deal of what Rich is trying to accomplish. The arid landscape serves Rich in her poetry just as it serves Jean Baudrillard in his theory: as a tabula rasa removed from anything human. Nature distilled.
Rich’s speaker abandons “whole LP collections” and “films we starred in” for “this condemned scenery.” She is forced to front the bare facts of her (quickly failing) relationship, and does not like what she sees. (“your eyes are stars of a different magnitude, they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT”). The daily, sustaining illusions are scorched. The end is nigh.

Truthfully, the poem is none of these interpretations. Not wholly. Not completely. Instead, it exists in the places between, where one reading reverses and becomes another. Deep contemplation of “Trying to Talk with a Man” leads the reader inevitably to a Freudian/Batailleian confrontation with Sex and Death. The drive toward each is one and the same: the craving for reversal, the desire for complete effacement of the self.

— Dawson Wohler is a writer and aspiring future ex-con. He has a Twitter account and a blog.

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