Rich is primarily a political poet, and this poem expresses her critique of a society following destructive paths. She frequently uses her own location and experience as starting points for an examination of social and political issues. At the time she wrote this poem, she had already been active in the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and the antiwar movement protesting against American involvement in the Vietnam War. At this stage of the women’s movement, feminists had formulated a critique of Western patriarchy. They believed that militancy and disregard of human rights had led Western civilization to the brink of disaster. Their goals included recognition of the rights of women and minorities (including people of color and homosexuals), better social services, day care for children, elimination of the disparities in salaries of men and women, better health care, and, in general, a more compassionate social ethos.
Rich has written both poetry and prose articulating her political concerns. In 1971, the same year that she wrote “Trying to Talk with a Man,” Rich was invited to participate in a forum discussing “The Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.” She wrote an important essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” in response to that invitation. The essay speaks of the exhilaration of awakening consciousness, and of the need for women to reexamine the conditions of their lives. The conclusion argues that “The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction.” It is up to women to redirect the destructive energy of patriarchy into more constructive channels and to inject a new, more humane, creative energy.
Many of Rich’s poems reflect her passionate commitment to these political concerns. Indeed, in the title poem of Diving into the Wreck Rich uses the metaphor of a shipwreck to critique a social order that she perceives to be drowning, in need of redirection. In “Trying to Talk with a Man” another extreme setting is used: a desert. The desert indicates the actual physical setting where bombs are tested, but as a symbol it signifies extremity, danger, sterility, and desolation. Reinforcing these ideas, the poem speaks of “condemned scenery” and a “ghost town/ surrounded by a silence.”
The word “silence” is repeated twice in this poem. It turns out that the silence is “familiar,” and that the two people have brought it with them to the desert. Real communication between men and women is lacking, with potentially dangerous consequences for individuals and for society. At the time she was writing this poem Rich explained her interest in dialogue in an interview published in the Ohio Review (1971). She described her obsession with the question of how people could talk with each other and escape from the traps of rhetoric to arrive at real communication.
To counteract the “silence” real communication is necessary. In this poem Rich argues that the redemption of Western civilization is as immediate, as simple, and as difficult as an act of communication between men and women.