Alice Templeton

Alice Templeton: On "(Dedications)"

"An Atlas of the Difficult World" ends with a poem entitled "(Dedications)" which calls attention to both the artifice of the poem and to the role of the reader. The entire thirteen-part poem may itself be seen as a monument addressed to the "internal emigrant," the "patriot" who strives to see her life and to see his country clearly. "(Dedications)" addresses those who would read the poem and look to it for its truth-telling, for its clarification of both the guilt and joy of living in a particular place and time. Rich catalogs several readers in different parts of the country, in different work and home situations, and in various states of need and desire, then concludes by acknowledging the dilemma of cultural participation faced by the reader, who is the ordinary patriot, the internal emigrant:

I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn

                        between bitterness and hope

turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.

I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else

                        left to read

there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

Though Rich continually acknowledges the reader in her feminist poetry, this poem expresses more confidence in the reader than does much of her earlier work. It suggests a camaraderie of need and understanding that Rich does not always encourage in her previous poems, even when she directly addresses the reader, such as at the end of "Contradictions" when the poet tells the reader to "cut loose from my words."

Alice Templeton on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

"Twenty-one Love Poems" especially challenges dominant cultural values and discourse while it exemplifies the internally dialogic, self-reflexive motion of Rich's poems. These short poems concern a relationship between two women which prospers but later disintegrates, a love made possible and impossible by the forces "within us and against us, against us and within us." In breaking silences about lesbian sexuality, "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)" not only resists being coopted into the heterosexual cultural system it challenges but also resists being systematized even within the structure of "Twenty-one Love Poems." By dialogically resonating or "floating" as a detached signifier of desire throughout the entire collection, the poem keeps the collection from being facilely subsumed into a heterosexual system or being received as a mere trope of that system. Yet, again, the twenty-one poems rely on the readers' recognizing the ideologies associated with heterosexuality and conventional ways of reading against which these love poems position themselves.

From The Dream and the Dialogue. Copyright © 1994 by The University of Tennessee Press.

Alice Templeton on: "Diving into the Wreck"

"Diving into the Wreck" presents a less privatized, more mythologized version of the theme in "Waking in the Dark." Rich again creates a setting that merges the ruinous state of modern civilization with the damaged sexuality of the self. The poet begins the exploration alone, but she suggests that others have risked such journeys toward clarification. In a passage that Rich and most readers now find problematic, the solitary explorer modulates into an androgyne as she approaches the wreck: "the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body / ... I am she: I am he...." Speaking, feeling, and seeing for both sexes, the poet wants to witness "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." Margaret Atwood notes that the wreck is "beyond salvation though not beyond understanding" (239), but the poem actually offers very little analysis of the wreck and quite a bit of explanation of how the wreck is approached, how the inquiry is carried out, and how the explorer understands the mission and her/himself. Other than describing the wreck of the self and of culture as "the drowned face" and "the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course / the water-eaten log / the fouled compass," the poem focuses on the process and attitude of the explorer. Even the motive is vague and not necessarily pure:

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.

"Diving into the Wreck" offers a metaphor for the crisis and necessity that could only be called a detached "it" in "Trying to Talk with a Man": "Coming out here we are up against it" (my emphasis). Yet as Cary Nelson has noted, "Diving into the Wreck" is hardly a concrete or thoroughly grounded poem since the androgyny it supplies oversimplifies sexuality and is itself a myth (156).

For Nelson, the poem "demonstrates that one can suppress difficult feelings by mythologizing them" in "stylized and abstract" ways (156); however, the poem's attention to the process of exploring the wreck and not to the analysis of the wreck is significant for both Rich's feminist theory and her poetic practice. The poem has cleared ground, and unlike "When We Dead Awaken," it stops before it reconstructs anything, satisfied with creating a new signifying space rather than overly desperate to fill it. In fact, the ending returns us to the beginning of the poem and prepares for another exploration by again mentioning the knife, the camera, and the book. As Werner says, the poem continually makes ready "for the descent which we are, then and now and perpetually, just beginning" (175). In its mythologized, abstract way, "Diving into the Wreck" conveys the dialectic between the epic feminist vision and the lyric feminist vision, as the diver and the wreck of culture coincide in the image of the "drowned face." While the modulation of the lyric "I" into the androgynous "we" presents problems, the strategy allows Rich to avoid the potential egotism of realistic self-dramatization and to expose the myth that the absence of "our names" signifies we are somehow unafflicted by the reductive sexual ideologies that prevail. Like many others in the volume, this poem raises the question of origin, of "where the split began" ("Waking in the Dark"): the poem privileges neither an external nor an internal site as the source of bifurcation, and it avoids hypostatizing a lost unity. Even the androgyny of the diver suggests not an original unity but the common bond of incompleteness, loss, and disrepair shared by all selves.

From The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Copyright © 1994 by the University of Tennessee Press.

Alice Templeton on: "Trying to Talk with a Man"

The first poem in Diving into the Wreck, "Trying To Talk with a Man," offers an important qualification to the epic extension between inner and outer life in "When We Dead Awaken." This opening poem can be read as Rich's farewell to marriage, a theme echoed later in "From a Survivor" and in "When We Dead Awaken" as the female companion gives up "keeping track of anniversaries" and begins to write in her "diaries / more honestly than ever." Again, in "Trying to Talk with a Man" the landscape of modern civilization, "this condemned scenery" of a bomb-testing site, provides an epic extension of the inner affliction, which is a feminist consciousness that is accompanied by a loss of faith in the honesty of daily culture: "whole LP collections, films we starred in / ... the language of love-letters, of suicide notes, / afternoons on the riverbank/ pretending to be children." The "condemned scenery," which is "surrounded by a silence / that sounds like the silence of the place / except that it came with us / and is familiar," is a landscape of consciousness, yet it possesses the physical, ethical dangers of a bomb-testing site. Here the poet feels "more helpless / with you than without you" because the other person misconstrues the risks and responsibilities of being in the place, and so fails to recognize the poet's way of being there:

You mention the danger and list the equipment  we talk of people caring for each other  in emergencies--laceration, thirst-- but you look at me like an emergency

Your dry heat feels like power your eyes are stars of a different magnitude  they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT  when you get up and pace the floor

talking of the danger as if it were not ourselves as if we were testing anything else.

The poem opens the volume acknowledging what the epic projection is not: it is not simply an external "fault" that must be guarded against; it is also an internal affliction for which the poet is responsible and to which she must be responsive.

From The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist poetics. Copyright © 1994 by The University of Tennessee Press.