For a Sister Analysis
by Adrienne Rich

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“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 from the media, knowing that newspaper articles are full of intentional omissions and errors. Rather than accepting the portrait painted by a journalist, she imagines her own version of the story of Natalya’s arrest. This is how Rich, though she does not trust the male agents in Natalya’s story—police officers, doctors, journalists, printers—is “learning how to use them.” From the information she collects from the newspaper, Rich imagines the arrest from Natalya’s perspective. Rather than entering her house with the police, readers see themselves as its inhabitants. They witness the police bursting in the door and Natalya glancing homeward while being carried away. They even remain in the house when Natalya is away, becoming privy to the domestic signs of her absence: the dusty floor, the milk souring in the pantry.

The fourth stanza conjoins the story of the arrest with the towchain metaphor. The towchain is a metaphor not only for the poet’s sense of herself as an instrument but also for her rescue of the actual events from the muddy waters of the newspapers. Natalya’s face is compared to the sunken marble that is “cranked up from underwater.” Not until one recognizes that the newspaper’s “facts” are merely partial truths can one engage in the more honest—and more poetic—pursuits of conjecture and imagination.

Rich’s poetic conjectures continue with Natalya being searched; her behavior and possessions are recorded in notebooks. Like the poet, who learns how to use male-dominated language by imagining beyond the paragraphs in the newspaper, Natalya uses the patriarchal system in order to reduce her sentence from twenty years to two. Rather than revealing her intelligence to the officials, she pretends to be insane, tracing circles in the air with her fingers and smiling vacantly. The officials willingly dismiss her political activism as madness, and she is given two years in a mental asylum rather than twenty in a prison.

Natalya returns home in the final stanza to set her story right. When she returns to her kitchen and lights her stove, she also takes out her typewriter to tell the stories that the newspapers omitted. Rich’s poem has already begun to imagine the story that Natalya might write, giving her what the male agents so vehemently withheld from her: the power to tell her own story.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)


(The entire section is 1,110 words.)