The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“For a Sister” is a short poem in free verse; its twenty-four lines are divided into six stanzas. It is dedicated to Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who was imprisoned in a mental asylum for her political activism. By referring to this Soviet dissident as a “sister,” the title puts the struggle of a distant and unknown woman into close relationship with the speaker. Another woman’s struggle for empowerment, the title suggests, no matter how far away she is or how little is known of her, sufficiently resembles an American feminist’s struggle that she might be called “sister.” The poem’s use of the first person expresses the personal viewpoint and experience of the poet. While often in lyric poetry the poet addresses the reader directly, in this poem the poet speaks to herself and to the absent Natalya Gorbanevskaya, while the reader overhears.

“For a Sister” begins with the poet imagining her own existence as a towchain. Like a chain, the poet feels herself twisted and pulled by various outside forces. A chain never initiates a motion; it pulls or twists only in response to being maneuvered. Even the connections, the links in the chain, are made by some external force: chance. Though it does not specify the object of the poet’s distrust, the first stanza links the poet’s caution with her experience of powerlessness. Perhaps the poet does not trust “them” because “they” are the causes of her disempowerment.

In the second and third stanzas, one learns that Adrienne Rich has read a few paragraphs about Natalya’s imprisonment. The poet does not trust the information she gathers...

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For a Sister Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An “apostrophe” is an address to an absent person or thing; as the speaker of “For a Sister” addresses the absent Natalya as though she were present, she brings her, in effect, into being. If one were to read the same newspaper article that Rich read, one might feel Natalya’s absence as she did. After reading Rich’s “For a Sister,” however, one feels as though one has met Natalya personally, peeped into her pantry, found dust on her floor, and witnessed her arrest. By addressing her directly, Rich humanizes that which the newspapers treated as an object, and the result is that Natalya becomes alive and present.

Another important device in “For a Sister” is the use of water imagery. In “Diving into the Wreck,” the title poem of the volume in which “For a Sister” appears, the image of a scuba diver exploring the underwater wreckage symbolizes the exploration of the past. In “For a Sister,” water is also reminiscent of a past event, but the movement has changed from a descent into the water to a drawing out from the water.

The image in “For a Sister” of the submerged marble statue as it gradually emerges from the water is a metaphor for the poet trying to peel away layers of storytelling in order to get to the truth about Natalya: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck”). Just as a towchain extracts from the river the sunken marble statue, the poet extracts Natalya’s story from the murky waters of the newspapers. As the water conceals the particular features on the marble face, so do newspaper articles omit most of Natalya’s story and even misrepresent the facts.

For a Sister Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Peace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Gwiazda, Piotr. “’Nothing Else Left to Read’: Poetry and Audience in Adrienne Rich’s ’An Atlas of the Difficult World.’” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 165-188.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

O’Reilly, Andrea. From Motherhood and Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born.” New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Ostriker, Alice. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Spencer, Luke. “That Light of Outrage: The Historicism of Adrienne Rich.” English: Journal of the English Association 51, no. 200 (Summer, 2002): 145-160.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.