Power dynamics

Adrienne Rich: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

There is one poem which is the real "onlie begetter" of my thoughts here about Dickinson; a poem I have mused over, repeated to myself, taken into myself over many years. I think it is a poem about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you. The archetype of the daemon as masculine is beginning to change, but it has been real for women up until now. But this woman poet also perceives herself as a lethal weapon:

[. . . .]

Here the poet sees herself as split, not between anything so simple as "masculine" and "feminine" identify but between the hunter, admittedly masculine, but also a human person, an active, willing being, and the gun--an object, condemned to remain inactive until the hunter--the owner--takes possession of it. The gun contains an energy capable of rousing echoes in the mountains, and lighting up the valleys; it is also deadly, "Vesuvian"; it is also its owner's defender against the "foe." It is the gun, furthermore, who speaks for him. If there is a female consciousness in this poem, it is buried deeper than the images: it exists in the ambivalence toward power, which is extreme. Active willing and creation in women are forms of aggression, and aggression is both "the power to kill" and punishable by death. The union of gun with hunter embodies the danger of identifying and taking hold of her forces, not least that in so doing she risks defining herself--and being defined--as aggressive, is unwomanly ("and now we hunt the Doe"), and as potentially lethal. That which she experiences in herself as energy and potency call also be experienced as pure destruction. The final stanza, with its precarious balance of phrasing, seems a desperate attempt to resolve the ambivalence; but, I think, it is no resolution, only a further extension of ambivalence.

Though I than he--may longer live

He longer must—than I—

For I have but the power to kill,

Without--the power to die--

The poet experiences herself as loaded gun, imperious energy; yet without the Owner, the possessor, she is merely lethal. Should that possession abandon her--but the thought is unthinkable: "He longer must than I." The pronoun is masculine; the antecedent is what Keats called "The Genius of Poetry."

I do not pretend to have--I don't even wish to have--explained this poem, accounted for its every image; it will reverberate with new tones long after my words about it have ceased to matter. But I think that for us, at this time, it is a central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist, particularly in the nineteenth century. It seems likely that the nineteenth-century woman poet, especially, felt the medium of poetry as dangerous, in ways that the woman novelist did not feel the medium of fiction to be. In writing even such a novel of elemental sexuality and anger as Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë could at least theoretically separate herself from her characters; they were, after all, fictitious beings. Moreover, the novel is or can be a construct, planned and organized to deal with human experiences on one level at a time. Poetry is too much rooted in the unconscious; it presses too close against the barriers of repression; and the nineteenth-century woman had much to repress.

From "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." Reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silences. (W.W. Norton, 1979).