Themes

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

The Personal and the Political
“Rusted Legacy” is a work with political themes, but those themes are suggested not by any sustained action or statements in the poem but by different images scattered throughout the four stanzas. The images presented for the most part are intimate, implying the close connection between personal attitudes and events and political ideas. The poet invites the reader from the beginning to “Imagine a city,” and this city is not an abstract, ideal city (like the philosopher Plato’s city in The Republic or the theologian St. Augustine’s city in The City of God) but what seems to be a very real, recognizable place with deer being killed on highways, where there are sewers and parks, and where there is architecture, governance, and people in power. The intimate connection between the poet and the city, the personal and the political, is emphasized by the poet as she thinks of the city as a mother to whom she returns when the former is dying.

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Other images reinforce the link between the personal and the political. The image of the “confused girl” seems to suggest the idea of political statements made by women who shave their heads to point out that the complexity of women’s political and social roles in society are most often not fully appreciated. But it is significant that it is a very particular girl (perhaps herself) that the poet refers to; she is not merely a symbol but a very real—but “forgotten”—girl who is part of the city. The poet refers to herself specifically beginning in the second stanza, explaining that she has a past in the city. This point becomes even clearer in the third stanza as she says she has forced herself to come back to the city to put her mother’s house “in order.” The poet uses another intimate image in the third stanza when she wonders if she can tear the old “wedding sheets” and use them as cleaning rags to put her mother’s house in order.

The sense conveyed in much of the poem is that the “rusted legacy” the poet is talking about is an ideological legacy, ideas from the past that have somehow become corrupted and are in a state of decay. At the end of the poem, the poet herself becomes these political ideas, as she is the one who is “scabbed with rust.” That is, within her, the personal and the political are completely fused. Like the other themes and ideas in the poem, to try to spell out exactly what Rich “means” when she suggests that the personal and political are intertwined is a difficult task. Perhaps she is calling to her reader’s attention, among other things, that politics pervade life at every level, that personal actions determine what happens in the world, and that emotional responses can provide hope for positive change even in a repressive and troubled political environment.

The Corruption of Political Ideals
The image of the city in “Rusted Legacy” offers a physical image of a place where the ideas of the past are in a state of decay. At first (in the first stanza), the city seems to be the same city it always was; it has the same architecture and governance that it had in the past, the same men and women in power. By the second stanza, it seems that the city was always in some state of degeneration and corruption, for example, its sewers are the same as its rivers. In the third stanza, there is the stark image of the city as an old woman who is sick and has been kept alive through the use of “medicinals.” The city in one way does not seem to have changed from the past to the present day, but in another way, it is a very different place now than it once was. There seems to be a suggestion that political ideas, positions, or outlooks in one sense stay the same but in another they change a great deal over the course of time. That is, the vibrancy of those ideas becomes old and dull as time passes.

The poem seems to suggest that political ideals of different kinds have corrupted over time. The city, which perhaps embodies the status quo or dominant ideology of American government (with its mainstream values of liberal democracy and suspicion of “leftist” or radical politics), was once powerful and strong but now it is like an old woman who relies on medicines to keep her alive. The political ideals of the poet/speaker seem also to have decayed over time. The poet says that she too is scabbed with rust, so presumably her political views have also degenerated. It could be that she once tried to accomplish justice in the city by her “dissent” but that was not successful. She returns to the city years later to find that the city has decayed but so too have her own ideals, or at least that they are no longer put into practice. Her lips are stone, which indicates she no longer professes (publicly) her ideals or does what needs to be done to effect change. However, although the poet laments the fact that political ideas and ideals are in a state of decay, she holds out hope for change. The tears that come from within her (a deeply personal and emotional response to the world) seem to be a likely force with which to create change, to “put her mother’s house in order,” to better the city, and to make the world a better a place.

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