Implosions --- 10 Poems of Adrienne Rich


By Adrienne Rich

The world's
not wanton
only wild and wavering

I wanted to choose words that even you
would have to be changed by

Take the word
of my pulse, loving and ordinary
Send out your signals, hoist
your dark scribbled flags
but take
my hand

All wars are useless to the dead

My hands are knotted in the rope
and I cannot sound the bell
My hands are frozen to the switch
and I cannot throw it
The foot is in the wheel

When all is over and we're lying
in a stubble of blistered flowers
eyes gaping, mouths staring
dusted with crushed arterial blues
barred with tiger-lily reds

I'll have done nothing
even for you


A Mark of Resistance

By Adrienne Rich

Stone by stone I pile
this cairn of my intention
with the noon's weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with this work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.



By Adrienne Rich

In the old, scratched, cheap wood of the typing stand
there is a landscape, veined, which only a child can see
or the child's older self, a poet,
a woman dreaming when she should be typing
the last report of the day. If this were a map,
she thinks, a map laid down to memorize
because she might be walking it, it shows
ridge upon ridge fading into hazed desert
here and there a sign of aquifers
and one possible watering-hole. If this were a map
it would be the map of the last age of her life,
not a map of choices but a map of variations
on the one great choice. It would be the map by which
she could see the end of touristic choices,
of distances blued and purpled by romance,
by which she would recognize that poetry
isn't revolution but a way of knowing
why it must come. If this cheap, mass-produced
wooden stand from the Brooklyn Union Gas Co.,
mass-produced yet durable, being here now,
is what it is yet a dream-map
so obdurate, so plain,
she thinks, the material and the dream can join
and that is the poem and that is the late report.


Final Notations

By Adrienne Rich

it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple

it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple

You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives

it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will


Diving into the Wreck

By Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,

and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.


Miracle Ice Cream

By Adrienne Rich

Miracle's truck comes down the little avenue,

Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls,
and, yes, you can feel happy
with one piece of your heart.

Take what's still given: in a room's rich shadow
a woman's breasts swinging lightly as she bends.
Early now the pearl of dusk dissolves.
Late, you sit weighing the evening news,
fast-food miracles, ghostly revolutions,
the rest of your heart.


Living in Sin

By Adrienne Rich

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own---
envoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.


By Adrienne Rich 

Far back when I went zig-zagging

through tamarack pastures
you were my genius, you
my cast-iron Viking, my helmed
lion-heart king in prison.
Years later now you're young
my fierce half-brother, staring
down from that simplified west
your breast open, your belt dragged down
by an oldfashioned thing, a sword
the last bravado you won't give over
though it weighs you down as you stride
and the stars in it are dim
and maybe have stopped burning.
But you burn, and I know it;
as I throw back my head to take you in
and old transfusion happens again:
divine astronomy is nothing to it.
Indoors I bruise and blunder
break faith, leave ill enough
alone, a dead child born in the dark.
Night cracks up over the chimney,
pieces of time, frozen geodes
come showering down in the grate.
A man reaches behind my eyes
and finds them empty
a woman's head turns away
from my head in the mirror
children are dying my death
and eating crumbs of my life.
Pity is not your forte.
Calmly you ache up there
pinned aloft in your crow's nest,
my speechless pirate!
You take it all for granted
and when I look you back
it's with a starlike eye
shooting its cold and egotistical spear
where it can do least damage.
Breath deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.

Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff

By Adrienne Rich 

Paula Becker 1876-1907

Clara Westhoff 1878-1954

became friends at Worpswede, an artist's colony near Bremen, Germany,
summer 1899. In January 1900, spent a half-year together in Paris,
where Paula painted and Clara studied sculpture with Rodin. In August
they returned to Worpswede, and spent the next winter together in
Berlin. In 1901, Clara married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; soon after,
Paula married the painted Otto Modersohn. She died in a hemorrhage
after childbirth, murmuring, What a shame!

The autumn feels slowed down,

summer still holds on here, even the light

seems to last longer than it should

or maybe I'm using it to the thin edge.

The moon rolls in the air. I didn't want this child.

You're the only one I've told.

I want a child maybe, someday, but not now.

Otto has a calm, complacent way

of following me with his eyes, as if to say

Soon you'll have your hands full!

And yes, I will; this child will be mine

not his, the failures, if I fail

will all be mine. We're not good, Clara,

at learning to prevent these things,

and once we have a child it is ours.

But lately I feel beyond Otto or anyone.

I know now the kind of work I have to do.

It takes such energy! I have the feeling I'm

moving somewhere, patiently, impatiently,

in my loneliness. I'm looking everywhere in nature

for new forms, old forms in new places,

the planes of an antique mouth, let's say, among the leaves.

I know and do not know

what I am searching for.

Remember those months in the studio together,

you up to your strong forearms in wet clay,

I trying to make something of the strange impressions

assailing me—the Japanese

flowers and birds on silk, the drunks

sheltering in the Louvre, that river-light,

those faces...Did we know exactly

why we were there? Paris unnerved you,

you found it too much, yet you went on

with your work...and later we met there again,

both married then, and I thought you and Rilke

both seemed unnerved. I felt a kind of joylessness

between you. Of course he and I

have had our difficulties. Maybe I was jealous

of him, to begin with, taking you from me,

maybe I married Otto to fill up

my loneliness for you.

Rainer, of course, knows more than Otto knows,

he believes in women. But he feeds on us,

like all of them. His whole life, his art

is protected by women. Which of us could say that?

Which of us, Clara, hasn't had to take that leap

out beyond our being women

to save our work? or is it to save ourselves?

Marriage is lonelier than solitude.

Do you know: I was dreaming I had died

giving birth to the child.

I couldn't paint or speak or even move.

My child—I think—survived me. But what was funny

in the dream was, Rainer had written my requiem—

a long, beautiful poem, and calling me his friend.

I was your friend

but in the dream you didn't say a word.

In the dream his poem was like a letter

to someone who has no right

to be there but must be treated gently, like a guest

who comes on the wrong day. Clara, why don't I dream of you?

That photo of the two of us—I have it still,

you and I looking hard into each other

and my painting behind us. How we used to work

side by side! And how I've worked since then

trying to create according to our plan

that we'd bring, against all odds, our full power

to every subject. Hold back nothing

because we were women. Clara, our strength still lies

in the things we used to talk about:

how life and death take one another's hands,

the struggle for truth, our old pledge against guilt.

And now I feel dawn and the coming day.

I love waking in my studio, seeing my pictures

come alive in the light. Sometimes I feel

it is myself that kicks inside me,

myself I must give suck to, love...

I wish we could have done this for each other

all our lives, but we can't...

They say a pregnant woman

dreams her own death. But life and death

take one another's hands. Clara, I feel so full

of work, the life I see ahead, and love

for you, who of all people

however badly I say this

will hear all I say and cannot say.



Shattered Head

By Adrienne Rich 

A life hauls itself uphill
through hoar-mist steaming
the sun's tongue licking
leaf upon leaf into stricken liquid
When? When? cry the soothseekers
but time is a bloodshot eye
seeing its last of beauty its own
a bloodshot mind
finding itself unspeakable
What is the last thought?
Now I will let you know?
or, Now I know?
(porridge of skull-splinters, brain tissue
mouth and throat membrane, cranial fluid)

Shattered head on the breast
of a wooded hill
Laid down there endlessly so
tendrils soaked into matted compose
became a root
torqued over the faint springhead
groin whence illegible
matter leaches: worm-borings, spurts of silt
volumes of sporic changes
hair long blown into far follicles
blasted into a chosen place

Revenge on the head (genitals, breast, untouched)
revenge on the mouth
packed with its inarticulate confessions
revenge on the eyes
green-gray and restless
revenge on the big and searching lips
the tender tongue
revenge on the sensual, on the nose the
carrier of history
revenge on the life devoured
in another incineration

You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or woods
is humid
with beloved matter
the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace

And the shattered head answers back

And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
Who did this to us?

Adrienne Rich's Life and Career
Adrienne Rich

There is no writer of comparable influence and achievement in so many areas of the contemporary women's movement as the poet and theorist Adrienne Rich. Over the years, hers has become one of the most eloquent, provocative voices on the politics of sexuality, race, language, power, and women's culture. There is scarcely an anthology of feminist writings that does not contain her work or specifically engage her ideas, a women's studies course that does not read her essays, or a poetry collection that does not include her work or that of the next generation of poets steeped in her example. In nineteen volumes of poetry, three collections of essays--On Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979), Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986), and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)--the ground-breaking study of motherhood, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), the editing of influential lesbian-feminist journals, and a lifetime of activism and visibility, the work of Adrienne Rich has persistently resonated at the heart of contemporary feminism and its resistance to racism, militarism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.

Rich was born 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two daughters of Arnold Rich, a doctor and pathology professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Helen Jones Rich, a gifted pianist and composer who had given up a possible professional musical career to raise a family. In her long autobiographical poem "Sources" (1983) and the essay "Split at the Root" (Blood, Bread and Poetry), Rich recalls her growing-up years as overtly dominated by the intellectual presence and demands of her father, while covertly marked by the submerged tensions and silences arising from the conflicts between the religious and cultural heritage of her father's Jewish background and her mother's southern Protestantism. Her relationship with her father was one of strong identification and desire for approval, yet it was adversarial in many ways. Under his tutelage Rich first began to write poetry, conforming to his standards well past her early successes and publications.

In 1951, Rich graduated from Radcliffe, and also won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize for her first book, A Change of World. W. H. Auden, the judge of the award, wrote a preface for the book that acquired eventual notoriety for its classic tones of male condescension and paternalism to female artists. Yet, the preface accurately describes Rich's elegant technique, chiseled formalism, and restrained emotional content. Rich's early poems clearly announced in theme and style their debt to Frost, Yeats, Stevens, and Auden himself, and received their high acclaim on the basis of that fidelity.

In 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she bore three sons in the next five years. As her journal entries from these years reveal, this was an emotionally and artistically difficult period; she was struggling with conflicts over the prescribed roles of womanhood versus those of artistry, over tensions between sexual and creative roles, love, and anger. Yet, in the late fifties and early sixties, these were issues she could not easily name to herself; indeed, they were feelings for which she felt guilty, even "monstrous," and for which there was as yet no wider cultural recognition, much less insight or analysis.

Rich's third book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), which was eight years in the writing, stands as a watershed in her poetic development. For the first time, in language freer and more intimate and contextual, she situates her materials and emotions against themes of language, boundaries, resistance, escape, and moments of life-altering choice. As the poem "The Roofwalker" states, "A life I didn't choose/chose me," while "Prospective Immigrants Please Note" rhetorically asserts that the safety of enclosures and illusions must be abandoned for the claims of a risky but liberating reality.

The critical reaction to Snapshots was negative, with objections to its bitter tone and the shift away from her hallmarks of formalism and emotional control. Tellingly, feeling she had "flunked," Rich wrote Necessities of Life (1966) with a focus on death as the sign of how occluded and erased she felt when her own sense of coming into her rightful subject matter and voice was denied. Necessities, personally and poetically, was less a retreat than a pause. Coinciding with her personal and poetic evolution was the tremendous force of the historical moment. Rich's earlier, inchoate feelings of personal conflict, sexual alienation, and cultural oppression were finding increasing articulation in the larger social/political currents gathering force throughout the sixties, from the civil rights movements to the antiwar movement, to the emergent women's movement.

Rich moved to New York in 1966, when her husband took a teaching position at City College. She taught in the SEEK program, a remedial English program for poor, black, and third world students entering college, which was raising highly political questions about the collision of cultural codes of expression and the relation of language to power, issues that have consistently been addressed in Rich's work. She was also strongly impressed during this time by the work of James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir. Though Rich and her husband were both involved in movements for social justice, it was to the women's movement that Rich gave her strongest allegiance. In its investigation of sexual politics, its linkage, as Rich phrased it, of "Vietnam and the lovers' bed," she located her grounding for issues of language, sexuality, oppression, and power that infused all the movements for liberation from a male-dominated world.

Rich's poetry has clearly recorded, imagined, and forecast her personal and political journeys with searing power. In 1956, she began dating her poems to underscore their existence within a context, and to argue against the idea that poetry existed separately from the poet's life. Stylistically, she began to draw on contemporary rhythms and images, especially those derived from the cinematic techniques of jump cuts and collage. Leaflets (1969), The Will to Change (1971), and Diving into the Wreck (1973) demonstrate a progressive coming to power as Rich contends against the desolation patriarchy enacts on literal and psychic landscape. Intimately connected with this struggle for empowerment and action is the deepening of her determination "to write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman's body and experience." In the poem "Tear Gas," she asserts "The will to change begins in the body not in the mind/My politics is in my body." Yet this tactic has not led Rich to a poetry that is in a way confessional. Rich's voice is most characteristically the voice of witness, oracle, or mythologizer, the seer with the burden of "verbal privilege" and the weight of moral imagination, who speaks for the speechless, records for the forgotten, invents anew at the site of erasure of women's lives.

With each subsequent volume--Twenty-One Love Poems (1976), A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New (1984), Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time's Power (1989), and most recently An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)--Rich has confirmed and radicalized her fusion of political commitment and poetic vision. In her urging women to "revision" and to be "disloyal," she has engaged ever-wider experiences of women across cultures, history, and ethnicity, addressing themes of verbal privilege, mate violence, and lesbian identity.

Over the years, Rich has taught at Swarthmore, Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State and Stanford University. Since 1976, she has lived with the writer and editor Michelle Cliff. She is active in movements for gay and lesbian rights, reproductive freedom, and for the progressive Jewish movement New Jewish Agenda. In 1981, she received the Fund for Human Dignity Award of the National Gay Task Force. Her poetry has been honored with the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck (which she accepted jointly with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde in the name of all women who are silenced), two Guggenheim Fellowships, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, the Common Wealth Award, the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry.

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.
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