Twenty-One Love Poems

Cary Nelson on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

The sequence begins with what sounds like a typical speaking voice in the presence of an American city's decay. "Whenever in this city," she writes, "sirens flicker / with pornography ... we also have to walk" (DCL, 25). The passage may appear to be a complaint, but "have to" actually serves as ethical insistence: "We need to grasp our lives inseparable / from those rancid dreams." The mode, as with so much of contemporary American poetry, is an ironic continuation of the Whitmanesque embrace in a landscape that has degenerated into tenements and "rainsoaked garbage." She does not, however, want the irony to blunt the discomfort of the contradictory impulses, and the last lines state her willed hopefulness dramatically:

No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,  sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,  dappled with scars, still exhuberantly budding, our animal passion rooted in the city.

This tension between desire and actuality persists in Rich's poetry no matter how thoroughly her emotional aspirations are countered by American history. From the negative poems about America in Necessities of Life through the more decisively compromised poems in The Will to Change, her despair and anger at American culture coexists with her wish for a renewed vision of American commonality. It is not until Merwin that we find an unremittingly bleak inversion of the Whitmanesque aesthetic. Yet even Rich's feminist version of Whitman's democratic interconnectedness is convincing only when it is completely interwoven with historical impossibility. Rich works steadily at this effort to depict female power amidst "the earth deposits of our history" (DCL, 13) through the recent poems in Poems Selected and New, and The Dream of a Common Language. One failed version of the effort is "Not Somewhere Else, But Here," which is almost a feminist recapitulation of the technique of "Shooting Script," but with its associations transcribed too loosely:

Death of the city        Her face sleeping     Her quick stride     Her unning Search for a private space    The city caving from within The lessons badly learned     Or not at all The unbuilt world This one love flowing    Touching other lives     Spilt love     The least wall caving

In "Twenty-one Love Poems" we can see where this work must lead. Through most of the sequence, she succeeds in interweaving the ordinary, unspectacular environment, the special social pressures always at the edge of her awareness, the historical forces ranged against two female lovers, and their shared intimacies. The relationship is always "a flute / plucked and fingered by women outside the law." Yet she reserves a privileged site--sexual intimacy--for a poem that voices the desire to break free of public history, their individual past, and the politics of the relationship. Between the fourteenth and fifteenth poems she places "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)." Enclosed, as its title is in parentheses, it is surrounded by and grounded in the twenty-one numbered poems. It is at once protected and threatened by them, and its opening and closing lines provide a passage to and from the concerns of the rest of the sequence: "Whatever happens with us," she writes at first, "Your body / will haunt mine," and closes with "whatever happens, this is" (DCL, 32). The sequence as a whole testifies widely to the paradoxical stresses in whatever happens," but this single poem, like Duncan's "Sonnet 4," reaches for a temporality all its own. The sequence's structure simultaneously gives and denies this poem that inviolability. This is Rich's most overtly erotic poem to date, and she may have simply been unable to politicize its intimacies:

[Nelson quotes "The Floating Poem"]

Except possibly for one excessively sentimental phrase "the innocence and wisdom of," a phrase whose conventionality suggests how difficult Rich found the poem to write "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)" succeeds in being both tender and sensual. The comic playfulness of the alliteration in "half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern" and the edge of comic self-regard in "insatiate dance" give the poem's rapture a tonal complication from which it benefits. We may even hear in these lines a wry echo of the pervasive garden imagery of her earliest work, but in this poem at least we are not altogether removed from those "paths fern-fringed and delicate" of A Change of World where "innocent sensuality abides."

One reads the first part of the sequence wondering if any of the poems will risk more frank physical description. Given that sense of hesitant anticipation, it is emotionally appropriate that this pivotal poem be unnumbered and symbolically free of all historical entanglement. Yet one can also say that Rich has left the sequence with a project unfinished and perhaps still to come, one that would be even more challenging to her audiences historicizing of erotic pleasure. As Foucault has argued, the privileging of sexuality as a special site for authentic self-expression is itself historically determined. Foucault's challenge to our confidence in the ahistorical character of sexuality is implicit in much that Rich has previously written about relations between the sexes. Indeed her recognition here that lesbian sexuality is "outside the law" is historicized exactly as Foucault argues: it is both a prohibition and an inducement to a form of sexuality conceived in opposition to the dominant culture. As Rich herself has written, lesbianism is a conflux "of the self-chosen woman, the forbidden 'primary intensity' between women, and also the woman who refuses to obey, who has said 'no' to the fathers" (OLS, 202); the impulse toward "the breaking of a taboo" cannot be separated from that "electric and empowering charge between women"--"an engulfed continent which rises fragmentedly to view from time to time only to become submerged again." If Rich follows this project through to completion, it may lead her to write poems about female sexuality that have the deconstructive force of poems about American history like "(Newsreel)."

Yet Rich will have to acknowledge the cost of these insights--both to herself and to her audience. For where history and politics are concerned, knowledge does not necessarily produce freedom. And history touches even our simplest pleasures. "The moment when a feeling enters the body," she writes, "is political. This touch is political" (WITC, 24). By focusing on what the poem itself can actually do (or fail to do) in the presence of that unacceptable, undeniable reality, Rich also creates a compelling record of our other human options. They are fewer and they are more problematic than her exhortatory poetry would lead us to believe. Yet we are also more driven to choose that small ground on which some witness can be given, for we are ourselves already being chosen by "the cruelty of our times and customs" (PSN, 234).

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Hayden Carruth on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

The heart of this book is a sequence of sonnetlike love poems--no, call them true sonnets. For if they do not conform to the prescribed rules, they certainly come from the same lyrical conception that made the sonnet in the first place, and it is long past time to liberate the old term from its trammeling codes of technique. Here is one from the sequence:

[Carruth quotes No. 11 from "Twenty-One Love poems"]

It is an outstanding poem but typical as well of Rich's way of writing: the genuinely literate sentences woven into genuinely poetic measures, cadences, and patterns of sound; the easy, perfectly assimilated classical allusion; the sense of immediate, unique experience; the details--here the female mountain and flower--turned into generalized insights of humane value. These are the resonances we find in all the poems. A mind is here, a loving mind, in and of this world, including all this world's cultural inheritance, yet still asserting, firmly and calmly, its own independence and newness.

From Harper’s (1978).

Jane Vanderbosck on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Poem XI of "Twenty-One Love Poems, presents the female landscape in miniature. The She is both the "volcano" and the women who "scale the path." The "jewel-like flower" that grows on the side of the mountain has a physical corollary in the clitoris. Again, the female is not one thing any more than it is one place. It is everywhere, any place that women perceive to be "eternally and visibly female." Existing on the land and in the body, it is both Nature and Woman.

What is interesting about this particular lyric is not only how Rich parallels the natural and the womanly (the flower and the clitoris, the burning core and the glowing arteries), but also her belief that women have the power to name their environment as well as themselves. When Rich and her friend define the "jewel-like flower," the poet pointedly reminds the reader that the flower was "nameless till we re-name[d] her." "Renaming" is analogous to "re-vision" here; the flower--like an "old text" is seen "with fresh eyes" and given a fresh name. Like the sybils of ancient Greece, these women prophesy a mysterious vision that is not of this world. In the case of these modern sybils, the vision is an exclusively female one which they (rather than the male priests of the Greek sanctuaries) interpret by the act of naming.

From Jane Roberta Cooper, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich. (University of Michigan Press, 1984).

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.

Gertrude Reif Hughes on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

In these "Twenty-One Love Poems," Rich identifies her relationship to the atrocities and injustices that originate from the complex fact that she puts with such eloquent simplicity in poem 1: "No one has imagined us." All kinds of disabling self-conceptions issue from that enormity. By not officially existing, women who love women--whether as mothers and daughters, as sisters, as lesbians, or as colleagues and friends--have to struggle even to believe in the existence of their own love, let alone to live that love. "[F]ighting the temptation to make a career of pain" (VIII), women who love women must identify the injuries but refuse to be the injured party.

From Jane Roberta Cooper, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich. (University of Michigan Press, 1984).

Judith McDaniel on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

The center of The Dream of a Common Language is a group of lesbian love poems, originally published as a separate booklet. . . . [I]n these poems Rich shows us a glimpse of the power generated by love, specifically the love of women for women:

    You've kissed my hair  to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,  I say, a poem I wanted to show someone ...  and I laugh and fall dreaming again  of the desire to show you to everyone I love,  to move openly together  in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,  which carries the feathered grass a long way down      the upbreathing air.

There is a special recognition in "your small hands, precisely equal to my own," the recognition that "in these hands / I could trust the world...." The strength in these poems is the discovery of the self in another, the range of knowing and identification that seems most possible in same-sex love: the encounter of another's pain, for example, leaves the poet knowing "I was talking to my own soul." Out of that sharing grows the ability to choose solitude "without loneliness," to define one's own sphere of action and growth:

I choose to be a figure in that light,  half-blotted by darkness, something moving  across that space, the color of stone  greeting the moon, yet more than stone: a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.

The choice, here and in most of Adrienne Rich's poetry, is of a process, a way of becoming, rather than a narrowly defined end.

From Reconstituting the World (Spinsters, Ink: 1978).

Carruthers On "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Mary J. Carruthers

One sees this epic theme developing fully in the middle section of The Dream of a Common Language, but articulated in a form conventionally associated with intimate romance materials. "Twenty-One Love Poems" is modeled upon the traditional sonnet sequence, though Rich. substitutes for technical sonnets poems varying between thirteen and twenty lines. They outline the story of a love affair, moving from union to estrangement, with the focus firmly upon the meditative "I" of the poet. This sequence is, as it traditionally has been, the love poetry of a conscious mind, for love is a disciplined and intelligentsocial art. It goes without saying that the lovers are women, and in her treatment of this subject lies the revolutionary nature of Rich's sequence. The world of the love affair is not "closeted," not closed off in romance; it is an epic world which shadows forth the destruction of an old order and the founding of a new. Her bold destruction of generic expectations is part of her apocalyptic theme; only in a completely new world, it suggests, can sonnets be used seriously for epic material.

From the beginning, the affair plays itself forward within a dying civilization:

[ . . . ]

It is the obligation of the poet, even in love, to "speak / to our life—this still unexcavated hole / called civilization, this act of translation, this half-world." The love affair is not an escape from the civitas (as it traditionally, at least since Dido, has been) but a means of redeeming it through the establishment of a new order:

Your small hands, precisely equal to my own— only the thumb is larger, longer—in these hands I could trust the world . . . such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence with such restraint, with such a grasp of the range and limits of violence that violence ever after would be obsolete.

This is a vision of social and moral renewal, not of orgasmic transcendence, and it indicates the precise relationship for Rich between the bonding of women and social transformation. The Lesbian love bespeaks a new moral, social order, and if it seems to have more in it of hand-holding than of liebestod, that is precisely why Rich can make it the basis of an epic rather than the ending of a tragedy. It is significant that the sexual consummation poem is called "Floating," and can be read at any point in the sequence. As she writes,

Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story, women at least should know the difference between love and death.

The love affair ends as the lover goes off "in fugue," but its legacy is a self recognized as whole and creative, together with a vision of a new social order. The act of breaking from her lover, paradoxically, by leaving her alone brings her to realize her own power and value:

I feel estrangement, yes. As I've felt dawn pushing toward daybreak.

She also realizes that the world in which she now lives is hostile not only to women but to bonding, civitas, of any sort:

If I could let you know— two women together is a work nothing in civilization has made simple, two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness . . . —look at the faces of those who have chosen it.

Yet the apparent loneliness is really a rebirth:

Can it be growing colder when I begin to touch myself again, adhesions pull away? . . . Am I speaking coldly when I tell you in a dream or in this poem, There are no miracles? (I told you from the first I wanted daily life, this island of Manhattan was island enough for me.)

That life is sustained by the dream of community, a mythic place beyond history, "not Stonehenge / simply nor any place but the mind," where the poet, alone in a "shared" solitude of dawn, "the great light," chooses to draw her magic circle, in effect beginning civilization again. It is apparent that the relationship of the magic circle to the daily life of Manhattan exists only psychically, and by a struggle "heroic in its ordinariness."

from "The Revision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." The Hudson Review 36.2 (Summer 1983).

Susan Stanford Friedman On: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Throughout "Twenty-One Love Poems," which form the structural center of The Dream of a Common Language, Manhattan serves as the alienating setting, representing the violent world which the lovers must inhabit, yet seek to transform with love and relationship. Just as H. D. started the Trilogy with her impressions of destruction on walking through her London neighborhood after a bombing raid, Rich began poem I of "Twenty-One Love Poems" with a walk through the city which produces images of violence. . . .

From Signs (1983).