If Adrienne Rich had only written her first two books or continued in that vein, she would no doubt have had a successful academic career and won more prizes, but her poetry would not have had the strong and lasting impact it has produced on a couple of generations so far. Her early verse was formal, a bit distant, a bit chilly, and you could read through all of it without knowing she was Jewish or through most of it that she was female.
Beginning with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), her poetry slowly transformed. She began to confront the enforced limitations of being female, of marriage, of what was expected of her. The first sign of this came for me in “September 21″, the last two lines of which imagines the winter solstice closing in:
“names and voices drown without reflection. / Then the houses draw you. Then they have you.”
But the examination of such constraint becomes overt in the title poem: “Your mind now, mouldering like wedding cake, heavy with useless experience,” she addresses the mother-in-law of the poem.
A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes. And Nature
that sprung-lidded still commodious
steamer-trunk of tempora and mores
gets stuffed with it all: the mildewed orange-flowers,
the female pills, the terrible breasts
of Boadicea beneath flat foxes’ heads and orchids.
She examines the narrowness of the expected roles but doesn’t yet imagine a way forward:
Poised, trembling and unsatisfied, before
an unlocked door, that cage of cages,
[ . . . ]
[ . . . ] Pinned down
by love, for you the only natural action
are you edged more keen
to prise the secrets of the vault? Has Nature shown
her household books to you, daughter-in-law,
that her sons never saw?
It’s still an affluent cage she explores, like Emily Dickinson’s endless housework. She writes about the cost of rebellion against that strait place women are held to:
[ . . . ] labelled harpy, shrew and whore.
[ . . . ] martyred ambition
stirs like the memory of refused adultery
At the end of this poem, she imagines a free woman but not how to get there. The craft is less constricted, less academic but still far more conventionally literary than her work will soon become. She still uses rhyme frequently. There’s still the archaic habit of capitalizing certain nouns like Nature or Object. There’s a new urgency but also a sense of being blocked, not yet exploring a way out: “[ . . . ] dead gobbets of myself / abortive, murdered or never willed?”
Other women seem to exist only to oppress, like the dead mother in “A Woman Mourned by Daughters” or the glamorous women who haunt some of the poems. At this point in her life, she describes herself in “Readings of History” as “neither Gentile nor Jew.” Yet Poems 1955-57 includes “At the Jewish New Year,” a poem that sees Judaism mostly as a history of pain, and yet it’s also a beginning of her identification as a Jew.
One kind of poetry missing is the love poem. In “Marriage in the Sixties”:
Two strangers; thrust for life upon a rock,
may have at last the perfect talk
that language aches for; still—
two minds, two messages.
A sense of being stalled even as she seeks to break loose characterizes these poems. She speaks of herself as aging already, which to me means she was feeling stuck.
It’s in the next collection, Necessities of Life (1966), that her craft and her sense of herself as active in the world begins, in the title poem, with a remaking, remodeling of that self.
One element that runs through her poetry all her life, even after she moved much later in life to California and brought its colors and landscapes into her writing, was a strong sense of the New England landscape. The wildflowers, trees, animals [particularly foxes, especially vixens with whom several times she identifies] are always specific, carefully and lovingly described. I’ve never seen this aspect of her poetry mentioned, but perhaps I’m very conscious of it because of my own love for nature mostly developed in New England.
The red fox, the vixen
dancing in the half-light among the junipers
wise-looking in a sexy way,
Egyptian-supple in her sharpness….
she springs toward her den
every hair on her pelt alive [ . . . ]
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:56-60