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On "Trying to Talk with a Man"


Susan Stanford Friedman

By the early seventies, Rich firmly connected the public culture of violence with the politics of the personal and the system of patriarchy--as a poem like "Trying to Talk with a Man" (1971), set near a bombing test sight, vividly demonstrates.

From Signs (1983).


Margaret Atwood

The first poem, "Trying to Talk with a Man, " occurs in a desert, a desert which is not only deprivation and sterility, the place where everything except the essentials has been discarded, but the place where bombs are tested. The "I" and the "You" have given up all the frivolities of their previous lives, "suicide notes" as well as "love-letters, " in order to undertake the risk of changing the desert; but it becomes clear that the "scenery" is already "condemned," that the bombs are not external threats but internal ones. The poet realizes that they are deceiving themselves, "talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves / as if we were testing anything else."

Like the wreck, the desert is already in the past, beyond salvation though not beyond understanding.

From The New York Times Book Review. (1973).


Eleanor Wilner

"Trying to Talk with a Man" (1971) is testing bombs in the desert, but it is she (not he) who refuses sublimation, who knows what these bombs mean: "ourselves / as if we were testing anything else."

From American Poetry Review (1975).


Cary Nelson

The devices that order her poems are the very ones that open the field of associations. In "Trying to Talk with a Man," the first lines seem flatly factual and public: "Out in this desert we are testing bombs, / that's why we came here." As the poem progresses, the recognition that political and interpersonal violence reflect one another grows. Political violence vents personal frustration that may itself be historically determined. Interpersonal violence is political and theatrical; its destructive, explosive testing mimics public antagonisms. In another poem a woman asks a man what he is feeling and his silent response is at once somatic and political: "Now in the torsion of your body," she realizes, "as you defoliate the fields we lived from/ I have your answer." Here in "Trying to Talk with a Man" the final lines bring these recognitions to a conclusion:

talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as I if we were testing anything else.

These lines bring the poem round to its beginning and thereby make it whole. Yet that very unity is a trap for the poem's readers, one from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. Our pleasure in the poem as a verbal construct confronts us with a conflation of self and history that leaves us no apparent margin of freedom. Helen Vendler argues that in this volume the war is "added as a metaphor ... for illustration of the war between the sexes rather than for especially political commentary," but I believe Rich depicts the relationship between politics and personal life as more complexly interdependent. It is not even a case of two separate domains whose traditional metaphors may be used to illuminate each other. In Rich's best poetry politics and personal life act out an unstable mix of mimesis and determinism.

From Our Last First poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Alice Templeton

The first poem in Diving into the Wreck, "Trying To Talk with a Man," offers an important qualification to the epic extension between inner and outer life in "When We Dead Awaken." This opening poem can be read as Rich's farewell to marriage, a theme echoed later in "From a Survivor" and in "When We Dead Awaken" as the female companion gives up "keeping track of anniversaries" and begins to write in her "diaries / more honestly than ever." Again, in "Trying to Talk with a Man" the landscape of modern civilization, "this condemned scenery" of a bomb-testing site, provides an epic extension of the inner affliction, which is a feminist consciousness that is accompanied by a loss of faith in the honesty of daily culture: "whole LP collections, films we starred in / ... the language of love-letters, of suicide notes, / afternoons on the riverbank/ pretending to be children." The "condemned scenery," which is "surrounded by a silence / that sounds like the silence of the place / except that it came with us / and is familiar," is a landscape of consciousness, yet it possesses the physical, ethical dangers of a bomb-testing site. Here the poet feels "more helpless / with you than without you" because the other person misconstrues the risks and responsibilities of being in the place, and so fails to recognize the poet's way of being there:

You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies--laceration, thirst--
but you look at me like an emergency

Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor

talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else.

The poem opens the volume acknowledging what the epic projection is not: it is not simply an external "fault" that must be guarded against; it is also an internal affliction for which the poet is responsible and to which she must be responsive.

From The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist poetics. Copyright 1994 by The University of Tennessee Press.


John Gery

Two earlier Rich poems, "Night-Pieces: For a Child" and "The Demon Lover," anticipate her later use of nuclear imagery to depict subjective experience. In the former poem, the poet as a young mother anxious about her child suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night "in a dark/ hourless as Hiroshima/ almost hearing you breathe/ in a cot three doors away" and then combines the primeval and the modern, when the mother imagines herself and her infant "swaddled in a dumb dark/ old as sickheartedness, / modern as pure annihilation," as the two of them "drift in ignorance." "The Demon Lover" also combines progeny and aimlessness with annihilation, when Rich records a dream about being bombed, and then adds:

The end is just a straw,
a feather furling slowly down,
floating to light by chance, a breath
on the long-loaded scales.
Posterity trembles like a leaf
and we go on making heirs and heirlooms.

In this poem the spectre of nuclear annihilation has the contours of the emptiness in a self-enclosed relationship.

In "Trying to Talk with a Man," the title and language point not to the landscape of holocaust, as "Early Warning" does in its intentionally misleading way, but to the intimacy of a collapsing marriage. Yet like Turner, Rich juxtaposes the imagery of domestic life against the arid "condemned scenery" of a Nevada test site: the "underground river/ forcing its way between deformed cliffs," the "dull green succulents," the "silence of the place," "laceration, thirst." Instead of using familiar images to portray extreme horror, Rich uses extreme images to express the deadening effects of a painful breakup between a man and a woman:

Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies--laceration, thirst—
but you look at me like an emergency

Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor

talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else.

In this poem, not only does our shared notion of a nuclear explosion (together with the expectation that weapons tested will inevitably be used) convey the despair of the poet, but in a fashion more subtle than in either "When" or "Early Warning," Rich's poem weaves a distinctly subjective yet broadly human experience into the very fabric of our conception of nuclear weapons, together with our impotence in containing them. The personal dread created by a failed relationship equals the deep cultural dread associated with annihilation. "Talking of the danger" of one reiterates exactly "'talking of the danger" of the other, because in both cases we are talking about ourselves and testing ourselves. As Turner and Rich both insinuate, only by acknowledging that it is we who are being tested will we begin to see our way through that danger.

By metaphorically integrating nuclear imagery and the fear of annihilation with more private dimensions of experience, apocalyptic lyric poets may not always express direct opposition to nuclearism, but, at their best, they broaden the figurative scope of both political poetry and the personal lyric in ways that reflect the age in which they are composed. "Trying to Talk with a Man" is finally neither solely about gender relations nor about nuclearism; it is about both. Once Rich's poem establishes its peculiar but intricate bond between these two critical concerns, our sense of both is irreversibly altered, as she speaks through the nuclear present. Whether or not the reconstruction of thought her poem embodies can lead to our survival is debatable, but without such a reconstruction we remain mired in our present inadequate modes of thinking.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright 1996 by the Board of regents of the State of Florida.


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