Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central theme of “For a Sister” concerns a poet’s confinement within traditional language. The double bind of the feminist poet is that though she cannot trust traditional language, she cannot do without it. Nevertheless, she struggles to transform the “objective” language of the journalist, rendering Natalya’s story with humanity and compassion. Even in the first three stanzas, when the poet reflects on the misinformation of the newspaper articles, she begins her corrections, adding to the story what the reporter left out: Natalya’s kitchen and her backward glance. The second half of the poem continues in this direction, constructing the truth from half-truths. That is what Rich means when she declares at the middle of the poem: “I don’t trust them, but I’m learning how to use them.” What she uncovers in her linguistic archaeology is not—as was probably implied, if not explicitly stated, in the newspapers—the face of an insane woman, but rather that of a woman who is wise enough to know that being completely rational would bring her twenty years in prison, while feigning madness would let her off after two.

The extended metaphor of the poem, which compares revealing the truth of Natalya’s arrest and imprisonment to the cranking up of her marble face from underwater, implies the equation of the poet to the towchain. Just as a towchain cranks up a statue from under the water, the poet reads a newspaper article, sees through its lies and half-truths, and imagines beyond...

(The entire section is 619 words.)