Gertrude Reif Hughes: On "Power"

While patriarchal history chronicles victories and victors, feminist history registers a record of resistance, and thus it may be called a history of enemies. This is not to say that feminist history doesn't celebrate women's power. Emphatically it does, particularly in the hands of Adrienne Rich. But it also serves to expose oppression and oppressors--a mission that Emerson failed to consider when he mused on the lessons history offers. Increasingly in her career of writing and reading, and reaching her audiences to think with her "how we can use what we have / to invent what we need," she has undertaken to tell the stories of women's oppression and women's resistance. She has unearthed evidence of resources depleted by all kinds of abuse, including non-use. She has uncovered also a record of heroic resilience. Because it is a history of survivors, the record that Rich retrieves for her readers inspires a more tragic recognition of powers than the history of inexhaustible capacity that Emerson celebrates. It awakens consciousness of our passion for survival, yes, but also of the counterforces against which that passion somehow prevailed and must continue to prevail.

To enable women to identify and resist these counterforces, Rich is committed to working like the backhoe in "Power," the poem that opens The Dream of a Common Language

Living     in the earth-deposits     of our history

Today a backhoe divulged     out of a crumbling flank of earth one bottle     amber     perfect      a hundred-year-old cure for fever     or melancholy     a tonic for living on this earth     in the winters of this climate

The amber bottle that the backhoe turns up has sobering, even sinister, implications. When the poem continues, it becomes clear that it is a souvenir of the disease it was used to cure as much as it is a momento of healing. For Rich goes on to muse how Marie Curie--that patriarchally endorsed Uncommon Woman of Science--could be killed by the destructive power of her own discovery because she could not acknowledge that "her wounds came from the same source as her power."

Far from indicting Curie for this fatality, Rich mourns her and indicts her killer, the seductive, destructive forces of patriarchal competitiveness. In this first poem of The Dream of a Common Language and in the final one, "Transcendental Etude," Rich presents the lure of prima donna performance as a virulent enemy to achieving the dream of any commonality at all.

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Criticism Overview
Title Gertrude Reif Hughes: On "Power" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jane Roberta Cooper Criticism Target Adrienne Rich
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Reading Adrienne Rich
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