For more than thirty years, Adrienne Rich has charted the emotional, political, social transformations of her time. Using her own life as the image of the deeply particular and impressively universal, Rich has carved into the American awareness a consciouness of change. Beginning as a finely controlled craftswoman writing in the style of Robert Lowell in the early 1950’s, Rich in A Change of World (1951) spoke to the constraints of womanhood, the limits of the female environment. Late in the 1950’s, Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law marked her bursting forward to chart a new sensibility. The poetic line was less rigorous; language and rhythm began to work together in the by-now familiar Rich tapestry. The Will to Change (1971) and Diving into the Wreck (1973) most clearly connected Rich to political changes—to the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the women’s movement. Her marriage, which ended during this period in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, had produced three sons, and, as Rich sharpened her feminist sensibility, she also pondered her role as the mother of males. Diving into the Wreck poignantly works through male/female relationships: the pain of her lost idealizations, the harsh reality of her husband’s suicide, the motherly fear for her sons’ involvement in the war.
Since the mid-1970’s, however, Rich has moved more and more toward an examination of women’s relationships to one another, to their foremothers, heroines, and to inner psychic processes. Rich, now in her fifties, and a lesbian living and working in Massachusetts, writes from a feminist-lesbian perspective. Most of her poems are about women, addressed to women, and/or concern women’s lives in different kinds of environments. From New York City to New England, the South, Midwest and Southwest, Rich gathers portraits, retells historical anecdotes, quotes her foremothers. This is women’s poetry, developing new images, thirsting for original contact in an old, familiar context.
The tone of A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far is firm, open, unflinching. In the past, Rich has written more poignantly, even masochistically, about the way women suffer out their lives. Underneath her despair has been an enduring idealism and optimism. In these poems, the effect is more flat, matter-of-fact. In “For Julia in Nebraska,” Rich describes the world of a sister/writer, Willa Cather. She calls upon Julia to listen to this story, for “history/ is neither your script nor mine/ it is the pictograph/ from which the young must learn.” Rich wants to state the unstated, the feelings, issues, yearnings, and facts which women before her have harbored. Willa Cather was silent about her love for women; her society would not permit her to write on this topic. Thus, in these poems Rich speaks what has been unspeakable: “THE HISTORY OF HUMAN SUFFERING/ like bound back issues of a periodical/ stretching for miles” (“Culture and Anarchy”).
These poems scour history, not to cleanse and erase the suffering of women, but to erode the veneer of silence and distortion, romance and self-sacrifice. In “Culture and Anarchy,” the voices of nineteenth century women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ida Husted Harper, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are a chorus to a poem about a stormy August afternoon. The forces of outer natural turbulence remind the poet about the history of revolution. The pages fluttering on the table, the torrent of typing upstairs, connect the storm to the ferocity of a writer’s creativity and to the inevitable bursting forth of contained energy. As she writes, she weaves...
(The entire section is 1506 words.)