Living in Sin Summary
Rich's poem is about domestic life and how the endless routine of housework can be be unfulfilling and emotionally deadening. The woman of the poem is living with a man. The title suggests that they are "living in sin," or not married. The woman "had thought"—the first words of the poem—that life in her boyfriend's studio would be different. The first seven lines sketch her belief that there would be "no dust upon the furniture of love" to clean, that the pipes would be quiet, the windows clear, and the entire apartment would be a kind of picturesque heaven: the image of the "plate of pears, / a piano with a Persian shawl" is photographic, like something from a magazine.
The poem turns on line seven, when this scene of domestic bliss "had risen" in her mind "at his urging." The is the one instance in the poem where there is a sense of blame or anger: it introduces the next seven lines, which describe the reality of the studio: the stairs "writhing" under the milkman at five am; the dirty dishes in the kitchen in the morning, the "beetle eyes" of a mouse or roach watching her from the cupboard. The ellipsis in line 14 suggests that there are many, many more such details she must face every morning and reinforces the sense of drudgery.
Lines 15–22 provide contrasts the two lovers' attitudes towards these details. "He" is unconcerned with the things that plague the woman: the images here are concrete and everyday: the man yawns, rubs his beard, complains about the piano, goes for cigarettes. But the woman is possessed by "minor demons." While the man is out, she makes the bed, dusts the furniture, and makes a mess with the coffee pot. Her cleaning has a desperate or compulsive quality to it, as if through this work she is able to fill a void.
The final lines of the poem provide a kind of resolution. "By evening" she had regained her romantic feelings ("though not so wholly"). The night is a time when the romantic promise of the studio holds sway, but even then, the dread of the day and the reality of domestic life (the "relentless milkman") troubles her sleep.