The Ambiguity of “Dialogue”

Adrienne Rich’s poems offer a vibrant look into thoughts of gender and sexuality. Dialogue is one such poem that offers a cross-examination of gender conformity, the nature of sexuality and an ambiguous reading of queerness in different forms.

Dialogue’s main plot can be read and interpreted as the narrator (of an unspecified gender who speaks in first person) referring to a ‘she’, who responds to the narrator with a monologue represented in italics : “ I do not know if sex is an illusion
I do not know who I was when I did those things
or who I said I was
or whether I willed to feel
what I had read about
or who in fact was there with me
or whether I knew, even then
that there was doubt about these things.” (Rich 100)

Now this can be read one of two days in the context of a queer lens reading. The first is the narrator is the only figure present in the story, with the I and she being two aspects of the narrator having an internal dialogue, where sex can be read as gender. The second is obviously much more straightforward, with two separate people having a conversation with each other about sex, in this case intercourse.

The beauty of this poem lies in its ambiguity and how it works to support either way. The ambiguity of defining who the ‘I’ and ‘she’ are can allow readers to interpret either opinion. The first is an interesting read of transness, where the ‘she’ is the trans personality speaking to the clearly conflicted original ‘I’. The italics can be read as inner monologue, so this ends up being the trans identity of the narrator describing sex as an illusion as their gender is a lie, expressing ‘doubt’ over their past actions (“I do not know/ who I was when I did those things). The fact it also line breaks into the inner monologue in a different stanza is both a literal transition for the poetry, and also metaphorical, because the ‘speaker’ changes. Thus the poem then becomes a dialogue of transness, of doubts of gender identity.

The alternative reading can be read as a potentially queer conversation between two partners, who discuss their intercourse and how it plays into their relationship. The “sex is an illusion” here implies more explicit subtext, which makes the second speaker’s (the ‘she’) dialogue more about the doubts that come with embracing their sexuality and queerness. It could potentially refer to them feeling uncomfortable about their previous encounters being with partners they weren’t attracted to.

Personally, I prefer the first reading as it makes a lot more use of the poetic form to take advantage of reader ambiguity and lean into us being conflicted alongside the narrator as to the identity of the speaker — much like gender identity conflict, we as readers are made to question who to identify in the poem, and their struggle about being themselves.

3 thoughts on “The Ambiguity of “Dialogue””

  1. This post is extremely insightful! You did a great job articulating these ideas while still being concise and clear. I completely agree with the points you brought out, especially your first interpretation. I thought that the past actions the narrator was talking about was who they might have loved in the past and how it makes them feel now looking back. I had never considered the idea of a past self in the sense of being trans but I think that it works extremely well given the language of the poem. If the “she” of the poem is another person, who would she be in relation to the narrator, a current partner or past? Or are they just a friend?

  2. Hi! I agree that the ambiguity of this poem is what makes it so powerful. The two interpretations lend themselves to really different outcomes, but I think it’s really cool how well both can relate to queer studies – I think that your final point about how readers have to question the identity in the poem as Rich questions her own (in the first interpretation) provides a really interesting lens to look at this through. I had mainly been interpreting it as a conversation between two people rather than one and had not thought of how the “she” and “I” affected each other, but Rich seems to use first person pronouns to portray different messages across several poems and this could definitely be interpreted using that.

    1. I absolutely agree with your take, ambiguity is a powerful tool in poetry and even more so in gender identity, simply because both involve careful figuring out of a complicated thought.

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