Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2705
Readers expecting a clear message, argument, or narrative from “Rusted Legacy” will be disappointed. Like many contemporary and “postmod- ern” poems, the work pushes the limits of normal speech and communication and offers ideas that are arcane, complex, and impossible to articulate using ordinary language and linear narrative. In the poem, Rich presents a series of images that seem to be disjointed, and there is often no clear sense of how the poem hangs together. There are also what seem to be personal reflections and references that are not explained. All these elements together seem to emphasize the idea that there are, in fact, no easy responses or analyses of the situations that are referred to in the poem—or to life in general. What seems to be suggested by this style of writing is that poetry is another complex human response to events and attitudes and to distill these experiences and ideas into neat, digestible, and pithy statements gets no closer to a genuine exploration or comprehension of them. Thus, the poem makes the reader work hard, to think about what is going on, to make connections, to call up emotions, to go down a number of different avenues of thought, even to admit to being confused in order to be engaged with the poem. Even so, it seems that the reader will be left wondering about many of the references made and what the poem ultimately “means.” However, that one does not “get” the poem fully does not indicate a failure on either the part of the poet or the reader. The experience of the poem itself is rewarding, and part of the strength of this particular work is its ability to elicit highly individualized responses and interpretations from readers. The following “summary” of the poem, it should be kept in mind, is also but one response to the poem, and there are other ideas lurking within it that will be summoned up by other readers, which might yield conflicting but equally legitimate interpretations of the work.
The plot or action of “Rusted Legacy” is difficult to decipher, but the title gives some indication of what the poem’s main theme or intention might be. A “legacy” is something (often a gift) that is transmitted from the past. This legacy or thing from the past that the poet speaks of is “rusted,” indicating that it is in some state of disrepair or decay. It was presumably once strong (as suggested by the metal imagery), but the years have diminished its sturdiness and shine. Reading through the rest of the poem, it seems likely that the “legacy” the poet speaks of is an ideological one, a set of beliefs or ideals that were once vibrant and powerful but are no longer the force they once were. Various images in the text of the poem suggest that the poet is looking back at a place and time in which she (and others) held certain ideals dear. Her opponents (those in authority) did not embrace her views, but they were important to the poet and her associates. There is also a suggestion that the ideals held by those she opposed (the authority figures) have similarly decayed. Various ideas or ideals from the past, then, are now seen by the poet to have degenerated; the legacy of that previous time is “rusted,” and the poem meditates on and grieves this state of affairs.
The first stanza opens by asking the reader to “Imagine a city.” The reader is thus brought in immediately as an active participant in the poem. It is not clear from the first line whether the city the poet speaks of is a real city or imaginary city. The poet then describes what seem to be very personal experiences from life in that city. Still addressing the reader, she says that in that city nothing a person does is forgiven, and one’s past deeds stay with a person like a scar or tattoo. But, strangely and paradoxically, while deeds are not forgiven, they are forgotten. The sense conveyed is that the reader has an intensely personal connection to the city and that the city is some sort of authority figure over her, a parent-figure perhaps.
The images used in the stanza are strange and suggest a number of possibilities. The poet says that almost everything is forgotten but then proceeds to list a series of memorable events. There is a deer flattened after it leapt across the highway looking for food. This seems to be an image that suggests wide-eyed innocence and a sudden, violent death that was unexpected in the course of doing something as basic as looking for sustenance. The poet then refers to “the precise reason for the shaving of the confused girl’s head.” This might be a reference to the shaving of young women’s heads in France during World War II as a sign or “brand” (echoing the references to “scar” and “tattoo” earlier in the poem) that they were “collaborators” who had relationships with German officers. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the shaved head of a woman often symbolized the fact that such branding of women did not recognize the complexity of female political and social roles in society. Thus, a shaved head for a woman is a sign of political protest, and perhaps here, the poet suggests a young woman (herself?) who is serious about her political beliefs but also confused about them in some way. The image that follows of the young boys pushing frogs is another violent image, but one that is strangely universal. All young boys, it seems, kill things for pleasure in this way. This of course makes the violent act no less disturbing.
The poet returns to talking about the city. It is a city that does not remember but yet is intent on retributions, or vengeance, for what has been done. What is the city intent on retributions for? Perhaps the political ideologies that it did not agree with, the defiance of authority on the part of those whose deeds adhere to them like scars? The poet again asks the reader to imagine the city, this time its physical appearance (its architecture) and political organization (its governance), including the men and women in power. Then, after asking the reader to imagine this city and presenting what seem to be references that are personal to her, the poet talks to the reader as though the reader has been a part of that city: “tell me if it is not true you still / live in that city.” The poet and the reader seem to have merged into one person. The poet is remembering a city or place (or a state of mind) whose ideology was contrary to hers. It is a city that is at once imaginary and also a place or a state of mind that the poet has never left.
The city the poet asks the reader to imagine in the second stanza seems to be the same city but it has very different characteristics. The imagery in this stanza is, among other things, religious. The poet asks the reader to imagine a city that is partitioned. This could be a city anywhere—in the Middle East (Jerusalem), where Israelis and Palestinians are forced to live in separate settlements, or in the United States, where many cities are divided so distinctly between sections where rich and poor reside. The city is described too in surreal terms. Temples (religious gathering places) and telescopes (suggesting that there is no privacy, that the residents are being observed constantly), the poet says, “used to probe the stormy codices.” Again, the latter is a religious image (a codex is a religious or spiritual law; “codices” is the plural form of the noun). It is not clear whether “used” indicates the past tense or whether the temples and telescopes are used to probe the stormy codices. Then too, the idea of “stormy codices” is puzzling.
The city is “blind” in some sense, as it is “brailling through fog”; the use of the noun “braille” (the script used by blind readers) as a verb together with “fog” offers another strange picture. The city, it seems, is a place of confusion and political repression (suggested by the “twisted wire” so common in prisoner-of-war camps). It is dark but there is something sensuous and inviting (its “velvet dialectic”) about it, perhaps in a false way. The city is corrupted, its rivers the same as its sewers. There is a great deal of water imagery in this stanza. The poet talks about art’s “unchartered aquifers,” indicating perhaps that the city has neglected this aspect of civil life. The source or “springhead” of the water is in municipal gardens that are left unlocked at night. All this water imagery, much of it mysterious, seems to indicate a city that is deluged and out of control. Water is normally cleansing and rejuvenating, but this water is not. The water might also indicate tears.
The second half of the stanza shifts in tone, and suddenly the poet seems to be transported to a very particular time and place. She is “under the pines” (apparently in one of the city’s unlocked municipal parks) at night while “arrests” are going on. She is fingering glass beads that she has strung. The beads (and arrests) might be an indication that this is the 1960s (when many young people wore beads), and the poet is at some type of protest or demonstration. That she is fingering beads (like a rosary) also reinforces the religious overtones of the stanza. She says she was transfixed from head to groin (which is unusual because this means her legs can move), and she wanted to save what she could—but there is no indication of what this might be. Then she says that “they” (with little clue as to who “they” are) brought little glasses of water into the dark park. They did this before they “gutted” the villages. Perhaps “they” are the authorities (police), who after their somewhat human gesture of bringing water for the demonstrators proceeded to destroy and do violence in response to the demon- strations. Then the poet ends the stanza by saying that “they” too were trying to save what they could. Maybe what she is suggesting here is that both the protestors and the authorities were acting according to their beliefs, each group doing what they had to do. The stanza ends echoing the last line of the first stanza, asking the reader if this is not the same city. Once again, it seems that the poet is looking back at the past but recognizes that in some ways things have not changed very much at all.
The poet now moves to speaking entirely in the first person, and it is clear that the city is a place she knows intimately. She says she has forced herself to come back to this place like a daughter who must put her mother’s house in order—presumably because her “mother,” the city, is old and diseased or dead. So then perhaps the “rusted legacy” that the title refers to is the legacy of the city, which is now decayed and no longer what it used to be. It is up to the daughter to clean up the ruins left of her family history. The poet says she returns to her mother’s house, where she needs gloves to handle the medicinals (that kept the mother going even though she was ill) and disease that pervade the house. She wonders if she is up to the task. She is an “accomplished criminal,” she says but does not know if she can accomplish justice here. This seems to imply that her criminal activity is not really criminal but politically subversive. Perhaps she is an activist who has moved on to other things and issues and now returns to the place of her past. It could be her past “deeds” were ineffectual but not “forgiven,” and now it is time to make positive changes to the city. The poet says she does not know whether she can do it, whether she can tear “the old wedding sheets” (family heirlooms, intimate treasures of one’s past) and “clean” the place as she needs to. There is a strong suggestion in this stanza that the poet is a person of certain political convictions who returns to the place of her youth, a place that she both loves and despises. The city she lived in has decayed, but the change she fought for has never made an impact on the city. She has come back to do something positive for the city, but she is not sure that she can do it.
There is water imagery in this stanza as well. The poet describes herself as stone with water pleating across her. Again, the water here might be tears. The idea of stone pleating across water also implies change that is extremely gradual (water eventually erodes and wears away stone). The poet seems to lament the fact that she is so unmoved by returning to the city and her mother; she is a faithless daughter “like stone.” But she has water pleating across her, implying that perhaps she can do something positive and make the changes that will make some difference to the city. Again, the stanza ends with the refrain echoed from the first stanza, as the poet asks if this is the same city. The city is the same, but in many ways it seems very different since it is in such a state of decay.
In the final stanza, the poet at first refers to herself in the first person but then makes references in the third person, using “she” and “her.” In the course of the poem, the poet has gone from being a shadowy presence who speaks to the reader, who then merges with the reader, who takes on a distinct personal past and becomes an “I,” and now seems to look at herself in a distanced and disengaged manner. She asks if this “I” must lie scabbed with rust. The title of the poem comes to mind, and it now appears that the poet herself embodies the “rusted legacy” referred to. Perhaps what she is saying is that her political ideology and deeds that once seemed so important are decayed and seem ineffectual. Thus she is like the city; she had strong beliefs that have degenerated, and in a sense, she too has decayed. The poet is crammed with memories of this place, this city where, again, most things are forgotten. There is no one left in this city, she says, to “go around gathering the full dissident story.” It sounds like she is the only one (of those who were arrested, or in the park, perhaps?) of her associates who has returned to the city and can tell the truth about what has happened in the past. Perhaps all her youthful associates have left the city (and the political causes) they held so dear when they were young, and she is the only one who still is fighting for justice. The poet says her hands and shoulders are rusting, her lips stone (indicating she is silenced in some way). Again there seems to be some hope for change as there are tears “leaching down” from her eyesockets (a disturbing image that seems to imply the tears are coming from deep within her). The water in her tears again might be the force of change, the power that slowly reshapes the stone of herself and the city into something of hope and renewal. She asks if her tears are for “one self” (herself) only. No, she concludes, her eyesockets, her tears are for the whole city. Each “encysts” it; each forms a sort of membrane or pouch around the city. This is, again, a disturbing and graphic image, but the idea seems to be that even from horror, violence, bitterness, regret, and mourning of a troubled past can there spring possibilities for positive change.