Amanda Auerbach’s poem “Rights” appears in our Summer issue. Here, she remembers the two voices—one from the left and one from the right—that inspired it.
I wrote the poem “Rights” in early February, on a drive up to Winter Park in Colorado, where I was going for my first ski day of the season. Back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’m a graduate student, it was the first day of Jorie Graham’s spring-semester poetry workshop. Even though I was missing the first day of workshop for skiing, I decided I would still make this my first day of poetry. I hadn’t been able to write since the election; there had been so many sources of anger to sort through that I was left feeling empty. I wasn’t sufficiently energized to create or do much else beyond working on my dissertation.
Attending the Boston Women’s March in January had helped pull me out of that state. I was struck by all of the politically relevant expressions of joy I encountered there. My favorite was probably the pervasive pink pussy hat, which casually baited the religious right. Though I came to the march sans poster and sans pussy hat, feeling like I didn’t have anything to add, I discovered, from participating in the chants, that I did. I had a voice I could use to say the same things as everyone else.
I wanted to try saying something in that protesting voice to see how it sounded. As my father-in-law drove me and my husband up Highway 40, the first two lines of “Rights” came into my head: “I do not do well without my chattel. / I do not do well without doing what I will with my chattel.” I assumed, after writing these lines, that my speaker was a stock Trump supporter. Then the language of the Women’s March protestors started to make its way into the poem as well. “It will bite your fingers,” the poem says. This came from the posters that said, THIS PUSSY BITES BACK. The place where these two lines meet is righteous indignation. What would happen, I thought, if I blended the language of the left and the right into a single voice?
Once I started playing with the language of the march, more and more of it seeped into the poem. I started to think about the signs that read my body, my choice. This rallying cry, with its defense of a woman’s right to own and control her own body, made me think of my Catholic relatives who voted for Trump. I started to wonder how my speaker, who was straddling these political lines, might stretch the logic of this phrase. The speaker extends the borders of their body and thus the scope of their rightful control, as happens in the lines, “All of it counts as one body / It grows within. / No part breaks off.” What is the scope of my speaker’s rightful control? What does this speaker think they have a right to control?
As I wrote, I discovered that the speaker’s attempts at self-justification led to some degree of self-knowledge about how illogical they were being. This comes through in the final lines: “I breed what I claim. / I breed what I do not understand.” Perhaps because these lines glance toward the metaphor between poet and poem and parent and offspring, writing them got me thinking about myself. I did not really understand what I had just written. Now I recognize that the speaker’s response to the possibility of losing their chattel is a defamiliarized version of my own reaction to the election. Through a similar series of logical missteps, I felt like I had a right to determine who our president should be.
“Rights” captures how powerful subjective determinations about what is right can be. They can lead us to feel, quite undemocratically, that our convictions about what is right should be law. My speaker is a bit absurd and apt to becoming confused. They have definitely found themselves in a minefield. And the poem’s language is so primal and emotional that it’s meant to be confusing. Once people are enmeshed in that language and start to feel righteously indignant, it can become impossible to evaluate the rightfulness of that feeling.
Amanda Auerbach is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University.