Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Power"

The opening poem in The Dream of a Common Language describes a similar revision of myth--again, the hero is a woman, and the treasure is not simply scientific knowledge but also knowledge of self, as the poet describes an attempt to reach into the earth for the sources of woman's distinctive power. Rich first combs through the earth deposits of "our" (female) experience of history to discover the amber bottle with its bogus palliative that will not ease the pain "for living on this earth in the winters of this climate." The second gesture of the poem is toward a text and model: the story of Marie Curie, a woman who seeks a "cure," denying that the "element she had purified" causes her fatal illness. Her refusal to confront the crippling force of her success and recognize the deadly implications of original discovery enables Curie to continue her work at the cost of her life. Denying the reality of the flesh, "the cracked and suppurating skin     of her finger-ends," she presses on to death:

She died     a famous woman     denying

her wounds


her wounds     came     from the same source as her power

Here, in the poem's closing lines, Rich uses physical space and the absence of punctuation (an extension of Dickinson's use of dashes) to loosen the deliberate, syntactic connections between words and thus introduces ambiguities that disrupt normative forms. The separation between words determines through the movement of the reader's eye--the movement past the "wounds" where it had rested the first time—the emphasis on the activity of denial and its necessary violation. The second "denying" carries the reader past the initial negative of a woman's denying self-destruction by extending the phrase "denying her wounds" into "denying her wounds came from the same source as her power." Denial is an essential precondition for the woman inventor's continuing to succeed; what she is denying, of course, is the inevitable sacrifice of self in work as well as the knowledge that her power and her wounds share a common source. Like Curie, this book’s later poems inform us, the woman poet must recognize a similar repression of her knowledge that what she is doing involves a deliberate rejection of the borrowed power of the tradition, the necessity of incurring the self-inflicted wounds that mark the birth of an individuated poetic voice.


Title Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Power" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne Feit Diehl Criticism Target Adrienne Rich
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Women Poets and the American Sublime
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