Midnight Salvage explores a unique path of poetry for Rich. In it, she uses real people to tell her stories of war, memory, history, and the violence of power. These are all themes with which Rich’s readers are familiar, but in this collection she requires her readers to question the social context, as well as what is accepted as truth.
“Seven Skins” portrays a young woman’s quest for knowledge in 1952. It begins in the library, where Rich makes a symbolic reference to elevation. A graduate student, Vic Greenberg, who is a “paraplegic GI-Bill of Rights Jew” rolls into the elevator and goes “up into the great stacks where all knowledge should and is and shall be stored like sacred grain,” while the rest of the world remains outside the library “stuck amid so many smiles.” Those outside the library are “lonely” for knowledge too but choose not to permeate the invisible barriers set forth because of the war; they remain “aground.”
Rich uses the limitations of one’s handicap, whether it be physical or mental, to point to the larger limitations of postwar society, including the inaccuracy of memory and one’s inability to re-create events with factual detail. She argues that part of remembering is re-creating what is lost in translation: “And this is only memory, no more/ so this is how you remember.” When one is outlining history, especially the history of a war society, remembering becomes entrenched in forgetting certain things.
Rich references Vic’s difficult mobility throughout the poem. He chooses a restaurant “which happens to have no stairs” and showers in a tub with “suction-cupped rubber mats.” Vic embraces his life and accepts his fate. He is confident and self-aware. He is everything that the young woman is not. She is a girl “ready for breaking open like a lobster” and “a mass of swimmy legs.” When Vic asks “the usual question” of whether she will join him for a postdinner drink in his room, she answers the way in which she believes any woman “has to answer/ you don’t even think.” Though the woman wants to go, and imagines the kind of night that she and Vic might have experienced between his “linen-service/ sheets,” she declines his offer, unable to defy the woman whom society judges she should be.