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Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Stepping Backward

 Good-by to you whom I shall see tomorrow,
Next year and when I'm fifty; still good-by.
This is the leave we never really take.
If you were dead or gone to live in China The event might draw your stature in my mind.
I should be forced to look upon you whole The way we look upon the things we lose.
We see each other daily and in segments; Parting might make us meet anew, entire.
You asked me once, and I could give no answer, How far dare we throw off the daily ruse, Official treacheries of face and name, Have out our true identity? I could hazard An answer now, if you are asking still.
We are a small and lonely human race Showing no sign of mastering solitude Out on this stony planet that we farm.
The most that we can do for one another Is let our blunders and our blind mischances Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.
We might as well be truthful.
I should say They're luckiest who know they're not unique; But only art or common interchange Can teach that kindest truth.
And even art Can only hint at what disturbed a Melville Or calmed a Mahler's frenzy; you and I Still look from separate windows every morning Upon the same white daylight in the square.
And when we come into each other's rooms Once in awhile, encumbered and self-conscious, We hover awkwardly about the threshold And usually regret the visit later.
Perhaps the harshest fact is, only lovers-- And once in a while two with the grace of lovers-- Unlearn that clumsiness of rare intrusion And let each other freely come and go.
Most of us shut too quickly into cupboards The margin-scribbled books, the dried geranium, The penny horoscope, letters never mailed.
The door may open, but the room is altered; Not the same room we look from night and day.
It takes a late and slowly blooming wisdom To learn that those we marked infallible Are tragi-comic stumblers like ourselves.
The knowledge breeds reserve.
We walk on tiptoe, Demanding more than we know how to render.
Two-edged discovery hunts us finally down; The human act will make us real again, And then perhaps we come to know each other.
Let us return to imperfection's school.
No longer wandering after Plato's ghost, Seeking the garden where all fruit is flawless, We must at last renounce that ultimate blue And take a walk in other kinds of weather.
The sourest apple makes its wry announcement That imperfection has a certain tang.
Maybe we shouldn't turn our pockets out To the last crumb or lingering bit of fluff, But all we can confess of what we are Has in it the defeat of isolation-- If not our own, then someone's, anyway.
So I come back to saying this good-by, A sort of ceremony of my own, This stepping backward for another glance.
Perhaps you'll say we need no ceremony, Because we know each other, crack and flaw, Like two irregular stones that fit together.
Yet still good-by, because we live by inches And only sometimes see the full dimension.
Your stature's one I want to memorize-- Your whole level of being, to impose On any other comers, man or woman.
I'd ask them that they carry what they are With your particular bearing, as you wear The flaws that make you both yourself and human.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Cartographies of Silence

 1.
A conversation begins with a lie.
and each speaker of the so-called common language feels the ice-floe split, the drift apart as if powerless, as if up against a force of nature A poem can being with a lie.
And be torn up.
A conversation has other laws recharges itself with its own false energy, Cannot be torn up.
Infiltrates our blood.
Repeats itself.
Inscribes with its unreturning stylus the isolation it denies.
2.
The classical music station playing hour upon hour in the apartment the picking up and picking up and again picking up the telephone The syllables uttering the old script over and over The loneliness of the liar living in the formal network of the lie twisting the dials to drown the terror beneath the unsaid word 3.
The technology of silence The rituals, etiquette the blurring of terms silence not absence of words or music or even raw sounds Silence can be a plan rigorously executed the blueprint of a life It is a presence it has a history a form Do not confuse it with any kind of absence 4.
How calm, how inoffensive these words begin to seem to me though begun in grief and anger Can I break through this film of the abstract without wounding myself or you there is enough pain here This is why the classical of the jazz music station plays? to give a ground of meaning to our pain? 5.
The silence strips bare: In Dreyer's Passion of Joan Falconetti's face, hair shorn, a great geography mutely surveyed by the camera If there were a poetry where this could happen not as blank space or as words stretched like skin over meaningsof a night through which two people have talked till dawn.
6.
The scream of an illegitimate voice It has ceased to hear itself, therefore it asks itself How do I exist? This was the silence I wanted to break in you I had questions but you would not answer I had answers but you could not use them The is useless to you and perhaps to others 7.
It was an old theme even for me: Language cannot do everything- chalk it on the walls where the dead poets lie in their mausoleums If at the will of the poet the poem could turn into a thing a granite flank laid bare, a lifted head alight with dew If it could simply look you in the face with naked eyeballs, not letting you turn till you, and I who long to make this thing, were finally clarified together in its stare 8.
No.
Let me have this dust, these pale clouds dourly lingering, these words moving with ferocious accuracy like the blind child's fingers or the newborn infant's mouth violent with hunger No one can give me, I have long ago taken this method whether of bran pouring from the loose-woven sack or of the bunsen-flame turned low and blue If from time to time I envy the pure annunciation to the eye the visio beatifica if from time to time I long to turn like the Eleusinian hierophant holding up a single ear of grain for the return to the concrete and everlasting world what in fact I keep choosing are these words, these whispers, conversations from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Victory

 Something spreading underground won't speak to us
under skin won't declare itself
not all life-forms want dialogue with the
machine-gods in their drama hogging down
the deep bush clear-cutting refugees
from ancient or transient villages into
our opportunistic fervor to search
 crazily for a host a lifeboat

Suddenly instead of art we're eyeing
organisms traced and stained on cathedral transparencies
cruel blues embroidered purples succinct yellows
a beautiful tumor

•

I guess you're not alone I fear you're alone
There's, of course, poetry:
awful bridge rising over naked air: I first
took it as just a continuation of the road: 
"a masterpiece of engineering
praised, etc.
" then on the radio: "incline too steep for ease of, etc.
" Drove it nonetheless because I had to this being how— So this is how I find you: alive and more • As if (how many conditionals must we suffer?) I'm driving to your side —an intimate collusion— packed in the trunk my bag of foils for fencing with pain glasses of varying spectrum for sun or fog or sun-struck rain or bitterest night my sack of hidden poetries, old glue shredding from their spines my time exposure of the Leonids over Joshua Tree As if we're going to win this O because • If you have a sister I am not she nor your mother nor you my daughter nor are we lovers or any kind of couple except in the intensive care of poetry and death's master plan architecture-in-progress draft elevations of a black-and-white mosaic dome the master left on your doorstep with a white card in black calligraphy: Make what you will of this As if leaving purple roses • If (how many conditionals must we suffer?) I tell you a letter from the master is lying on my own doorstep glued there with leaves and rain and I haven't bent to it yet if I tell you I surmise he writes differently to me: Do as you will, you have had your life many have not signing it in his olden script: Meister aus Deutschland • In coldest Europe end of that war frozen domes iron railings frozen stoves lit in the streets memory banks of cold the Nike of Samothrace on a staircase wings in blazing backdraft said to me : : to everyone she met Displaced, amputated never discount me Victory indented in disaster striding at the head of stairs for Tory Dent
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

From an Atlas of the Difficult World

 I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour.
I know you are reading this poem standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven across the plains' enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem in a room where too much has happened for you to bear where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed and the open valise speaks of flight but you cannot leave yet.
I know you are reading this poem as the underground train loses momentum and before running up the stairs toward a new kind of love your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out, count themselves out, at too early an age.
I know you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language guessing at some words while others keep you reading and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

For the Record

 The clouds and the stars didn't wage this war
the brooks gave no information
if the mountain spewed stones of fire into the river
it was not taking sides
the raindrop faintly swaying under the leaf
had no political opinions

and if here or there a house
filled with backed-up raw sewage
or poisoned those who lived there
with slow fumes, over years
the houses were not at war
nor did the tinned-up buildings

intend to refuse shelter
to homeless old women and roaming children
they had no policy to keep them roaming
or dying, no, the cities were not the problem
the bridges were non-partisan
the freeways burned, but not with hatred

Even the miles of barbed-wire
stretched around crouching temporary huts
designed to keep the unwanted
at a safe distance, out of sight
even the boards that had to absorb
year upon year, so many human sounds

so many depths of vomit, tears
slow-soaking blood
had not offered themselves for this
The trees didn't volunteer to be cut into boards
nor the thorns for tearing flesh
Look around at all of it

and ask whose signature 
is stamped on the orders, traced
in the corner of the building plans
Ask where the illiterate, big-bellied
women were, the drunks and crazies,
the ones you fear most of all: ask where you were.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Diving into the Wreck

 First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this not like Cousteau with his assiduous team aboard the sun-flooded schooner but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for, we who have used it.
Otherwise it is a piece of maritime floss some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me the blue light the clear atoms of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me, I crawl like an insect down the ladder and there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin.
First the air is blue and then it is bluer and then green and then black I am blacking out and yet my mask is powerful it pumps my blood with power the sea is another story the sea is not a question of power I have to learn alone to turn my body without force in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget what I came for among so many who have always lived here swaying their crenellated fans between the reefs and besides you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth the drowned face always staring toward the sun the evidence of damage worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty the ribs of the disaster curving their assertion among the tentative haunters.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently about the wreck we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes whose breasts still bear the stress whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies obscurely inside barrels half-wedged and left to rot we are the half-destroyed instruments that once held to a course the water-eaten log the fouled compass We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera a book of myths in which our names do not appear.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Integrity

 the quality of being complete; unbroken condition; entirety
~ Webster
A wild patience has taken me this far

as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor
old sweaters, nets, spray-mottled books
tossed in the prow
some kind of sun burning my shoulder-blades.
Splashing the oarlocks.
Burning through.
Your fore-arms can get scalded, licked with pain in a sun blotted like unspoken anger behind a casual mist.
The length of daylight this far north, in this forty-ninth year of my life is critical.
The light is critical: of me, of this long-dreamed, involuntary landing on the arm of an inland sea.
The glitter of the shoal depleting into shadow I recognize: the stand of pines violet-black really, green in the old postcard but really I have nothing but myself to go by; nothing stands in the realm of pure necessity except what my hands can hold.
Nothing but myself?.
.
.
.
My selves.
After so long, this answer.
As if I had always known I steer the boat in, simply.
The motor dying on the pebbles cicadas taking up the hum dropped in the silence.
Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider's genius to spin and weave in the same action from her own body, anywhere -- even from a broken web.
The cabin in the stand of pines is still for sale.
I know this.
Know the print of the last foot, the hand that slammed and locked the door, then stopped to wreathe the rain-smashed clematis back on the trellis for no one's sake except its own.
I know the chart nailed to the wallboards the icy kettle squatting on the burner.
The hands that hammered in those nails emptied that kettle one last time are these two hands and they have caught the baby leaping from between trembling legs and they have worked the vacuum aspirator and stroked the sweated temples and steered the boat there through this hot misblotted sunlight, critical light imperceptibly scalding the skin these hands will also salve.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Shattered Head

 A life hauls itself uphill
through hoar-mist steaming
the sun's tongue licking
leaf upon leaf into stricken liquid
When? When? cry the soothseekers
but time is a bloodshot eye
seeing its last of beauty its own
foreclosure
a bloodshot mind
finding itself unspeakable
What is the last thought?
Now I will let you know?
or, Now I know?
(porridge of skull-splinters, brain tissue
mouth and throat membrane, cranial fluid) 

Shattered head on the breast
of a wooded hill
Laid down there endlessly so
tendrils soaked into matted compose
became a root
torqued over the faint springhead
groin whence illegible
matter leaches: worm-borings, spurts of silt
volumes of sporic changes
hair long blown into far follicles
blasted into a chosen place 

Revenge on the head (genitals, breast, untouched)
revenge on the mouth
packed with its inarticulate confessions
revenge on the eyes
green-gray and restless
revenge on the big and searching lips
the tender tongue
revenge on the sensual, on the nose the
carrier of history
revenge on the life devoured
in another incineration

You can walk by such a place, the earth is 
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or woods 
is humid
with beloved matter
the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace

And the shattered head answers back

And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
Who did this to us?
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

November 1968

 Stripped
you're beginning to float free
up through the smoke of brushfires
and incinerators
the unleafed branches won't hold you
nor the radar aerials

You're what the autumn knew would happen
after the last collapse
of primary color
once the last absolutes were torn to pieces
you could begin

How you broke open, what sheathed you
until this moment
I know nothing about it
my ignorance of you amazes me
now that I watch you
starting to give yourself away
to the wind
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law

  1

You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time,
and play a Chopin prelude
called by Cortot: "Delicious recollections
float like perfume through the memory.
" Your mind now, moldering like wedding-cake, heavy with useless experience, rich with suspicion, rumor, fantasy, crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge of mere fact.
In the prime of your life.
Nervy, glowering, your daughter wipes the teaspoons, grows another way.
2 Banging the coffee-pot into the sink she hears the angels chiding, and looks out past the raked gardens to the sloppy sky.
Only a week since They said: Have no patience.
The next time it was: Be insatiable.
Then: Save yourself; others you cannot save.
Sometimes she's let the tapstream scald her arm, a match burn to her thumbnail, or held her hand above the kettle's snout right inthe woolly steam.
They are probably angels, since nothing hurts her anymore, except each morning's grit blowing into her eyes.
3 A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes.
And Nature, that sprung-lidded, still commodious steamer-trunk of tempora and mores gets stuffed with it all: the mildewed orange-flowers, the female pills, the terrible breasts of Boadicea beneath flat foxes' heads and orchids.
Two handsome women, gripped in argument, each proud, acute, subtle, I hear scream across the cut glass and majolica like Furies cornered from their prey: The argument ad feminam, all the old knives that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours, ma semblable, ma soeur! 4 Knowing themselves too well in one another: their gifts no pure fruition, but a thorn, the prick filed sharp against a hint of scorn.
.
.
Reading while waiting for the iron to heat, writing, My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun-- in that Amherst pantry while the jellies boil and scum, or, more often, iron-eyed and beaked and purposed as a bird, dusting everything on the whatnot every day of life.
5 Dulce ridens, dulce loquens, she shaves her legs until they gleam like petrified mammoth-tusk.
6 When to her lute Corinna sings neither words nor music are her own; only the long hair dipping over her cheek, only the song of silk against her knees and these adjusted in reflections of an eye.
Poised, trembling and unsatisfied, before an unlocked door, that cage of cages, tell us, you bird, you tragical machine-- is this fertillisante douleur? Pinned down by love, for you the only natural action, are you edged more keen to prise the secrets of the vault? has Nature shown her household books to you, daughter-in-law, that her sons never saw? 7 "To have in this uncertain world some stay which cannot be undermined, is of the utmost consequence.
" Thus wrote a woman, partly brave and partly good, who fought with what she partly understood.
Few men about her would or could do more, hence she was labeled harpy, shrew and whore.
8 "You all die at fifteen," said Diderot, and turn part legend, part convention.
Still, eyes inaccurately dream behind closed windows blankening with steam.
Deliciously, all that we might have been, all that we were--fire, tears, wit, taste, martyred ambition-- stirs like the memory of refused adultery the drained and flagging bosom of our middle years.
9 Not that it is done well, but that it is done at all? Yes, think of the odds! or shrug them off forever.
This luxury of the precocious child, Time's precious chronic invalid,-- would we, darlings, resign it if we could? Our blight has been our sinecure: mere talent was enough for us-- glitter in fragments and rough drafts.
Sigh no more, ladies.
Time is male and in his cups drinks to the fair.
Bemused by gallantry, we hear our mediocrities over-praised, indolence read as abnegation, slattern thought styled intuition, every lapse forgiven, our crime only to cast too bold a shadow or smash the mold straight off.
For that, solitary confinement, tear gas, attrition shelling.
Few applicants for that honor.
10 Well, she's long about her coming, who must be more merciless to herself than history.
Her mind full to the wind, I see her plunge breasted and glancing through the currents, taking the light upon her at least as beautiful as any boy or helicopter, poised, still coming, her fine blades making the air wince but her cargo no promise then: delivered palpable ours.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Planetarium

 Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), 
astronomer, sister of William; and others.
A woman in the shape of a monster a monster in the shape of a woman the skies are full of them a woman 'in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles' in her 98 years to discover 8 comets She whom the moon ruled like us levitating into the night sky riding the polished lenses Galaxies of women, there doing penance for impetuousness ribs chilled in those spaces of the mind An eye, 'virile, precise and absolutely certain' from the mad webs of Uranusborg encountering the NOVA every impulse of light exploding from the core as life flies out of us Tycho whispering at last 'Let me not seem to have lived in vain' What we see, we see and seeing is changing the light that shrivels a mountain and leaves a man alive Heartbeat of the pulsar heart sweating through my body The radio impulse pouring in from Taurus I am bombarded yet I stand I have been standing all my life in the direct path of a battery of signals the most accurately transmitted most untranslatable language in the universe I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo- luted that a light wave could take 15 years to travel through me And has taken I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

 My swirling wants.
Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.
They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.
I want you to see this before I leave: the experience of repetition as death the failure of criticism to locate the pain the poster in the bus that said: my bleeding is under control A red plant in a cemetary of plastic wreaths.
A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor.
These images go unglossed: hair, glacier, flashlight.
When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time.
When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning but further than that I could not say.
To do something very common, in my own way.
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

In Those Years

 In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Our Whole Life

 Our whole life a translation 
the permissible fibs

and now a knot of lies 
eating at itself to get undone

Words bitten thru words

~~

meanings burnt-off like paint 
under the blowtorch

All those dead letters 
rendered into the oppressor's language

Trying to tell the doctor where it hurts 
like the Algerian 
who waled form his village, burning

his whole body a could of pain 
and there are no words for this

except himself
Written by Adrienne Rich | Create an image from this poem

Two Songs

 1.
Sex, as they harshly call it, I fell into this morning at ten o'clock, a drizzling hour of traffic and wet newspapers.
I thought of him who yesterday clearly didn't turn me to a hot field ready for plowing, and longing for that young man pierced me to the roots bathing every vein, etc.
All day he appears to me touchingly desirable, a prize one could wreck one's peace for.
I'd call it love if love didn't take so many years but lust too is a jewel a sweet flower and what pure happiness to know all our high-toned questions breed in a lively animal.
2.
That "old last act"! And yet sometimes all seems post coitum triste and I a mere bystander.
Somebody else is going off, getting shot to the moon.
Or a moon-race! Split seconds after my opposite number lands I make it-- we lie fainting together at a crater-edge heavy as mercury in our moonsuits till he speaks-- in a different language yet one I've picked up through cultural exchanges.
.
.
we murmur the first moonwords: Spasibo.
Thanks.
O.
K.