Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330
Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium" is a feminist poem inspired, as the poet's note states, by Caroline Herschel, an astronomer who is usually defined by her relationship to her brother William. As the note suggests, however, the poem's observations are not limited to Caroline Herschel: "others" too have been forced to experience society in a way that makes them feel like "a monster."
The poem describes the "skies" as being full of monsters "in the shape of a woman." This is not meant literally, but figuratively: women who spend their lifetimes behaving in a way that is not expected are subverting the natural order. The poet describes how Caroline Herschel spent her "98 years," using instruments and lenses to "discover / 8 comets" and yet ultimately never achieving the fame she deserved.
Like "us," the female readers, Caroline and the other "galaxies of women" whose "impetuousness" was their downfall are "ruled" by the moon—an allusion to menstruation, perhaps, or to the idea of the moon as a lunar goddess.
The poem breaks apart in terms of its form at this point, in concert with the "NOVA" encountered by women, as the speaker describes. The speaker suggests that this nova, society, forces the life out of women, making it difficult for them to feel they have not "lived in vain." Women are "bombarded" by a "battery of signals"—Rich depicts these as radio and light signals, but we can interpret the signals also as the signals directed at women by a society which does not appreciate them.
In the final stanza, the speaker describes herself as a "galactic cloud," one so deep that all these signals can barely penetrate it. She is "an instrument in the shape of a woman" who is making an attempt to translate all the signals that are being directed towards her, in order to feel that she can be relieved in both body and mind. The signals are so multitudinous and so confusing that this can seem a monumental task.