Study of History: Addressing the Queer Body

In her poem Study of History, Adrienne Rich first writes: “The mind of a river / as it might be you”. Rich writes this poem entirely in the second person, making the reader wonder whether she is addressing the entire queer community or a singular queer individual.
It is important to first notice Rich’s metaphor. Not only does she choose to write about water; she chooses to write about a body of water, a river in particular. This is crucial because body is a word used to represent either a collective community or a particular individual. Words and terms such as “upstream”, “below the water line”, and “which of your channels diverted” imply that this body is complex, fluid and diverse. This could represent vast diversity within the queer community, but could also be interpreted as the fluid complexity of one’s sexuality/gender.
The last line of the first stanza and the entire second stanza describe external factors that destroy the river. When Rich writes of “Lying in the dark, to think of you / and your harsh traffic / gulls pecking at your rubbish… pleasure cruisers wiltlessy careening you”, it is made clear that this river has been exploited; it is polluted and decaying. This forces the reader to not only recognize society’s general impact on the queer community, but also recognize that societal norms restrict/slow down an individual’s queer identity. Use of gerunds in the first and second stanza not only imply that this is the river’s current state, but a continuous state that will likely flow into the future.
Rich also indicates that past trauma further impacts the river’s decrepit state. The third stanza focuses more on “what was done to you upstream” (Rich). When inquiring about the past Rich asks the reader “what powers trepanned”. After a quick google search, I found out that trepanning (now very illegal) was a surgery much like a lobotomy, but instead of an ice pick through the eye socket doctors used a drill entering through the temple. Separating essential nerve endings in the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain, doctors believed this surgery would guide queer people back to an acceptable sexuality. As a community, Rich could be referring to the literal surgery, therefore reflecting on a collective, historical trauma many queer bodies experienced. Yet also, her use of trepanning could refer to the restrictive gender/sexuality norms that were metaphorically “drilled into our heads” from a young age. Homophobic ideology becomes so ingrained into our society that queer bodies are likely to suffer from internalized homophobia.
Therefore, Study of History reflects on a universal queer history, as the river represents histories shaping the collective and individual queer body.

2 thoughts on “Study of History: Addressing the Queer Body”

  1. Your analysis of the way Rich uses water related terminology was really fabulous, I agree with your analysis of the dichotomy of the body of water representing a specific individual, or possibly the entirety of the queer community, it was really well phrased. Also the details regarding the trepanning, examining the literal and metaphorical meanings of the phrase, adds to the emotional weight of both the poem itself and its title significantly. Also, after reading your post, and a previous post about Diving into the Wreck, I’ve discovered the intense similarities between the two. Although Diving into the Wreck may be focused on an active journey of self exploration rather than gazing back upon a failed one, Rich uses water in all forms and the presence of a once illustrious object in both poems. The river in Study of History represents the marginalized body (or bodies) of the queer community, and the wreck the tarnished yet still lustrous history that such damaged bodies have fought for.

  2. hi:)
    i really loved the way you connected Rich’s use of the word body as a metaphor to queer bodies and the subsequent trauma that follows. The imagery of a polluted ocean with cruise ships floating through expressing the exploitation of queer bodies is very powerful. I also thought your research surrounding the word “trepanned” was really insightful and I thought the image of “drilling heteronormativity into our heads” was an interesting connection to the piece.

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