Adrienne Rich published “Rusted Legacy” in the literary journal Sulfur in 1997. The poem appeared two years later in her poetry collection Midnight Salvage, in which the poet declared she tried, at the end of the century, “to face the terrible with hope, in language as complex as necessary. . . . to write . . . for readers . . . finding their own salvaged beauty as I have found mine.” The poems meditate on political ideas and events from the twentieth century and attempt to “salvage” hope from the fear, violence, and despair that have characterized that period of history. Like the other poems in the volume, and as with much of Rich’s work since the 1960s, “Rusted Legacy” fuses the political and the personal. In the poem, the speaker looks back on political events and attitudes of another time and place and laments the decay of once powerful ideas and ideals, exploring the effect of those views on society and on her personally.
“Rusted Legacy” is an intense and difficult work, one that does not lend itself to straightforward interpretation. The poem’s action is often perplexing, and the images used are obscure, rooted as they are in Rich’s personal experiences. The piece seems to denounce political repression, comment on the withering of principles, and explore sexual roles, but this sense is derived not from any sustained statement or explanation by the poet but from the mood and scattered thoughts presented in the work. Rich has been faulted for her grim intellectualism and inaccessibility, and these characterizations may well be said to apply to “Rusted Legacy.” However, for all its complexity and gloomy obscurity, the poem also bears the hallmarks of Rich’s finest work, with its musicality of language and ability to elicit emotions using stark, disconcerting imagery.
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...
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