Adrienne Rich

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Interpret Adrienne Rich's poem "Necessities of Life."

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It is also possible to interpret the narrator's re-entry into life not literally but figuratively. Notice that she says, "I seem to re-enter the world." The use of the verb "seem" emphasizes the sense of re-engagement, not literal re-engagement. She continues:

I first began

A small, fixed dot, still see

that old myself, a dark-blue thumbtack

pushed into the scene,

a hard little head protruding

from the pointillist’s buzz and bloom.

She sees her former self as "small" and "fixed," like a dot within a pointillist painting. This indicates that she never felt insignificant, as each dot is necessary to create a full image in a pointillist work, but that she felt like a small part of a whole. It is possible that the narrator is referring to herself during girlhood. When we are children, we are aware of our smallness, but as a girl, the narrator was very firm about who she was, a characteristic that she describes with the metaphor "a dark-blue thumbtack." "A hard little head" could refer to childhood stubbornness. 

After her transformation into womanhood, the image changes, becomes distorted even:

After a time the dot

begins to ooze. Certain heats

melt it.

Now I was hurriedly

blurring into ranges

of burnt red, burning green,

whole biographies swam up and

swallowed me like Jonah.

Outside forces cause her to lose the firmness of her past self. Her "blurring" is the result of trying to conform to other lives, other people's expectations ("whole biographies").

She becomes a myriad of others in one body: Wittgenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and "the soul" of the actor Louis Jouvet, but "dead in a blown-up photograph." She cannot capture a spirit that is not her own, only a reflection.

After being nearly consumed ("wolfed almost to shreds") by others' expectations, she "learned to make [herself] unappetizing." This means that if she stops turning herself into an object of consumption, others will stop consuming her. Now, she is free to use herself: "let nothing use me."

The life that she has left is hers alone, and it is for her "name over the bare necessities." If she can become good at deciding on what she needs, she thinks that she will move through the world with more agility ("trenchant in motion as an eel") and regain the solidity lost in early womanhood ("solid as a cabbage-head").

The community that awaits her is an open one ("a field"). She likens the houses there to "old women knitting, breathless to tell their tales." The simile indicates a candor she is likely to achieve later in life with "practice." She will be able to engage with that community when she can identify ("now and again to name over") her bare necessities.

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This famous poem by Adrienne Rich comments upon the theme of resurrection and re-engagement with life. The persona of the poem describes how "piece by piece" she re-enters the world that she had left before. If we examine the persona, we can see that this poem is centred around the central theme of struggle with the world in relation to role and identity. The persona is clearly confused and is now re-entering the world, having left it, with the desire to have a second chance at living.

One of the ways in which this theme is presented is through the structure of the poem, that, in places, mirror the development of the persona. Consider the way in which the only stanza in the poem that both initiates and concludes a sentence in the poem is the following line: "So much for those days." This indicates the way in which the persona is deliberately moving on from how she formerly considered her necessities of life, and has now changed her perspective and is ready to re-enter the world with a different mindset.

The poem therefore narrates one woman's courageous decision to reverse an earlier choice made in her life and to try and engage in the risky and hazardous enterprise of living in the world rather than sitting out in the game of life.


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