Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

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 them. The poet thus becomes the instrument whereby the truth is revealed.

The poem ends with the poet reflecting on how poetic image-making might further the interests of truth and justice. Readers see the same domestic scene that introduced Natalya to them but from which she was taken: her kitchen. When, after two years in a mental asylum, she returns to her kitchen, her first act, lighting the stove, affirms her femininity. When she takes out her typewriter, however, she frees herself from the prison of journalistic reports and assumes control of her own language. Rather than allowing her story to be misrepresented by the journalists, Natalya will tell it herself—or, perhaps Rich’s poem, dedicated to telling Natalya’s story from Natalya’s viewpoint, will give her voice.

In the final stanza, the poet’s goal of using language in the service of women is realized. Each image in “For a Sister” is imagined as becoming the property of Natalya. The sight of a geranium from a distance might be seen, as Rich sees it in line 22, as fire pouring from a green cloth. Though scientifically named by its genus Pelargonium, characterized by red flowers and smooth, peltate leaves, the geranium Rich sees in line 22 resists the name and description given to it by scientists. That name, like “the trained violence of doctors,” originates in patriarchal oppression. Rich frees herself from the confines of male-dominated language by transforming the geranium into a poetic image: “flames on a green cloth.”

In these final lines, Rich ceremonially gives this image and the others that constitute the poem—the souring milk, the towchain, the emerging marble statue—to Natalya. That is suggested by the first and last two words of the final stanza: “My images” and “Your story.” What the poem depicts is the process by which the poet derives power from her own images: the power to transform male-dominated language into a feminist story, a power that she shares with Natalya. The result is Rich’s gift of her poem, given not only to Natalya but also to all women involved in the struggle for a voice and for the power to make themselves heard.

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