Rich boldly proclaims “I know you” to twelve types of readers in “XIII. (Dedications).” She strives to isolate the reader as a way of asserting her intense connection with the authentic readers who approach her work. She is acutely aware that the idyllic poetry readers—the single guy in the coffee shop or group of girls in the basement of the dorm—are not real. She goes even further to imply that even if these readers do exist, they are not the ones to whom she is writing. She does not include in her catalog of readership anyone that would seem typical.
She invades the reader’s personal space, making it impossible for him or her to dismiss the work as nothing more than words on a page. According to Rich, all readers are “stripped” and “listening for something.” She speaks to those who are trapped by life, those living “where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed/ and the open valise speaks of flight/ but you cannot leave yet.” Immediately following this characterization of entrapment is one of intense freedom—readers full of dare and blithe who are “running up the stairs/ toward a new kind of love/ your life has never allowed.” She pulls at the heartstrings of a woman searching for the life that she has lost amid “warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand/ because life is short and you too are thirsty.” Rich reminds her readers that, as literate beings, they all are empty without words. She wants to know what it is that readers find within and between her inconsistent stanza styles, asking to know with which words they struggle and with which words they identify.
The theme of the poem is the natural misreading of language. As a reader, she states you are “turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse,” not daring to dismiss her words yet striving for self-assuredness that you can stand without them. She poignantly warns the reader that though “there is nothing else left to read/ there where you have landed, stripped as you are” you may find solace in the fact that you share this space with those surrounding you who work to find meaning and work to dismiss it as quickly as it is found.