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.