intimate romance materials

Carruthers On "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Mary J. Carruthers

One sees this epic theme developing fully in the middle section of The Dream of a Common Language, but articulated in a form conventionally associated with intimate romance materials. "Twenty-One Love Poems" is modeled upon the traditional sonnet sequence, though Rich. substitutes for technical sonnets poems varying between thirteen and twenty lines. They outline the story of a love affair, moving from union to estrangement, with the focus firmly upon the meditative "I" of the poet. This sequence is, as it traditionally has been, the love poetry of a conscious mind, for love is a disciplined and intelligentsocial art. It goes without saying that the lovers are women, and in her treatment of this subject lies the revolutionary nature of Rich's sequence. The world of the love affair is not "closeted," not closed off in romance; it is an epic world which shadows forth the destruction of an old order and the founding of a new. Her bold destruction of generic expectations is part of her apocalyptic theme; only in a completely new world, it suggests, can sonnets be used seriously for epic material.

From the beginning, the affair plays itself forward within a dying civilization:

[ . . . ]

It is the obligation of the poet, even in love, to "speak / to our life—this still unexcavated hole / called civilization, this act of translation, this half-world." The love affair is not an escape from the civitas (as it traditionally, at least since Dido, has been) but a means of redeeming it through the establishment of a new order:

Your small hands, precisely equal to my own— only the thumb is larger, longer—in these hands I could trust the world . . . such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence with such restraint, with such a grasp of the range and limits of violence that violence ever after would be obsolete.

This is a vision of social and moral renewal, not of orgasmic transcendence, and it indicates the precise relationship for Rich between the bonding of women and social transformation. The Lesbian love bespeaks a new moral, social order, and if it seems to have more in it of hand-holding than of liebestod, that is precisely why Rich can make it the basis of an epic rather than the ending of a tragedy. It is significant that the sexual consummation poem is called "Floating," and can be read at any point in the sequence. As she writes,

Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story, women at least should know the difference between love and death.

The love affair ends as the lover goes off "in fugue," but its legacy is a self recognized as whole and creative, together with a vision of a new social order. The act of breaking from her lover, paradoxically, by leaving her alone brings her to realize her own power and value:

I feel estrangement, yes. As I've felt dawn pushing toward daybreak.

She also realizes that the world in which she now lives is hostile not only to women but to bonding, civitas, of any sort:

If I could let you know— two women together is a work nothing in civilization has made simple, two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness . . . —look at the faces of those who have chosen it.

Yet the apparent loneliness is really a rebirth:

Can it be growing colder when I begin to touch myself again, adhesions pull away? . . . Am I speaking coldly when I tell you in a dream or in this poem, There are no miracles? (I told you from the first I wanted daily life, this island of Manhattan was island enough for me.)

That life is sustained by the dream of community, a mythic place beyond history, "not Stonehenge / simply nor any place but the mind," where the poet, alone in a "shared" solitude of dawn, "the great light," chooses to draw her magic circle, in effect beginning civilization again. It is apparent that the relationship of the magic circle to the daily life of Manhattan exists only psychically, and by a struggle "heroic in its ordinariness."

from "The Revision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." The Hudson Review 36.2 (Summer 1983).