Video: The Poetry & Legacy of Adrienne Rich

To read a woman poet using and subverting the modernists‘ collage/quotation/fragmentation techniques, so often employed in mockery of women, in a project of specifically womanly and ardently feminist inquiry, was a heady gift.

I am myself a woman of the left, a feminist, a lesbian, a secular non-Zionist Jew, an American, and a poet—aware how some identities can be chosen or ignored and others constitute facts of one’s life immutable as bone structure. And how even this fact can be modified by history.

Because I am a poet, the possibilities, the ramifications of what a poet might accomplish—as a writer, and as what we now call a ‚public intellectual,‘ an eloquent, representative citizen—have been important to me since I began to read and write myself out of childhood.

Adrienne Rich was a poet less than a generation my senior who was redefining these possibilites in a way that I could understand, in a way that was useful. It seems clear that one intention of Adrienne Rich as a poet was, at least, since the 1960s, to do something useful—and not only useful to younger poets.

As far back as Leaflets, indeed as far back as Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Adrienne Rich’s body of work establishes, among other things, an intellectual autobiography—not the narrative of one life which she goes out of her way to reiterate it is not; and still less: intimate divulgence, but as the evolution and revolutions of an exceptional mind with all its curiosity outreaching exasperation, even its errors.

Even when Rich became most insistent, and I, as a reader insistent with her, on her particularity as a woman—as an American woman—and on the historical overdetermination of women’s experiences and supposed limitations, she was insisting, as well, that a woman’s intellectual, political, aesthetic development could provide an emblematic narrative for a generation. That it could, like the richly referenced self-examinations of a philosopher like Montaigne, provide that emblematic narrative for generations to come.

Historical Context

Rich published “Rusted Legacy” in 1997, as the century was drawing to a close. The poem is political, and although it is difficult to pinpoint particular events in the work, it clearly comments on the political legacy of the second half of the twentieth century. This is a common theme in almost all of Rich’s work from the 1960s on, as the poet explores her frustrations with the status quo and the injustice she perceives in society. Indeed, Rich expresses her anger at social injustice not only in her work but also by being a vocal advocate for political change on a number of fronts, fighting for gay rights, women’s rights, and economic justice. In 1997, the same year that “Rusted Legacy” was published, Rich made headlines when she refused the National Medal for the Arts, which is awarded by the White House. In a letter published by the New York Times, Rich wrote “I cannot accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” She further commented that she could not be celebrated by a political system that allowed such disparities between rich and poor in American society.

“Rusted Legacy” is a poem written very much in the spirit of Rich’s anger at the corrupt politics of the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The poem laments the degeneration of once powerful political principles as the poet looks back and is saddened that the activism of earlier times did not elicit any lasting change. Although Rich’s poem makes no specific reference to this situation, it is interesting that President Bill Clinton has been seen by many of his critics to have been a figure who once held lofty political ideals (he was known for his extremely liberal position in the 1960s and his objection to the Vietnam War) but who abandoned those notions for practical political gain—essentially so that he could have a career in mainstream politics. While Rich does not make the connection in her poem, it is ironic and significant that her public political objection to the Clinton administration in 1997 is echoed in her poem, written the same year, that mourns the decay of political ideals.

Historical Context

Pamela Steed Hill

When Adrienne Rich is able to refrain from man-bashing and obsessing on male violence against women, when she can put aside overt political propagandizing and social injustice tirades, and when she steps back from using her lesbianism as an in-your-face tool for provoking the status quo, her poetry is all the better for it. In spite of the fact that Rich’s fame, or infamy, is founded on her tendency to dwell on these very subjects, no scholar or general reader can deny that she has produced some of the most arresting imagery and unique poetic visions of anyone writing in the contemporary United States. One of her more recent poems, “Rusted Legacy,” is evidence of it. This poem proves that what one does simply with can make a remarkable difference in determining what is just rhetorical fodder and what is truly a message worth receiving.

The concern for is a major component of Rich’s poetry, and often it turns out that the place in question is the speaker’s own body. While there may be nothing inherently misleading about this premise in verse, Rich frequently lingers on the intimate, personal self to the point of overkill. She

has long been noted for insisting that the personal is inevitably political, and these two elements serve as vital inspiration for her. As a result, they tend to fuel each other throughout much of her work. In , critic Harriet Davidson suggests that “Rich’s emphasis on ‘location’ keeps her tied to the material world and away from the temptations of philosophical idealism and transcendence that tend to obscure the material conditions of different people’s lives.” This may be partially true, but the poet is no stranger to philosophizing in verse and using her publications as political platforms. Davidson addresses Rich’s common use of the physical being as a “location” in saying that “The body’s world is in history, in places, in discourses, a world we cannot escape or control.” This theory is probably on the mark as far as understanding Rich’s penchant for linking personal life to politics and, therefore, to history and society in general. But in “Rusted Legacy” the reader, for the most part, is spared too much intimate exposure and too much ideological ranting in favor of provocative imagery and objective accounting. Certainly, place is central to the poem’s context, but, here, the location is not the speaker’s body, but a city. That alone helps make the poem more palatable than many of Rich’s goading, didactic works.

Likely since the first poet put pen—or quill— to paper, verse writers have endured the precarious burden of assuring their art’s credibility, especially in the face of so many who would cast it off as mere fluff or sentimental poppycock. While history has shown that the naysayers have at times been justified in their skepticism, it has also shown that her own mind and body. The “city” she chronicles is harsh and unforgiving, and it pays no mind to its victims— the “deer flattened leaping a highway for food,” the “confused girl’s head” that was shaved, apparently in a mental institution, and “the frogs” bearing whatever cruelty “small boys” can weigh upon them. These are things most people are familiar with, and yet they probably do not come to mind until someone points them out. Rich’s message is critical: it is easy to forget the suffering of the innocent when they are overshadowed by the mindless machine of “governance” and “the men and the women in power.”

The poem becomes even stronger metaphorically in the second stanza. Regardless of what city or cities are referred to, one knows for sure that these are towns with troubled histories, towns that the poet lived in or visited long enough to witness social unrest among the citizens and a frequently severe response from the government. Rich is eloquent in her depiction of an evidently dismal scene—the city is “divorced from its hills,” and “temples and telescopes” have played a role in breaking down the codes of would-be revolutionaries and dissidents. Perhaps the city in the second stanza is Rome, which Rich visited as a young woman. But this idea is downplayed as though to emphasize that the specific place is not as important as understanding the condition of urban life generally and symbolically. The word “brailling” adds a wonderful touch to keep the idea of codes and underground operations and government probes alive. Since it is spelled with two ), a nautical term for the nets that one uses to haul in fish. This definition still cleverly perpetuates notions of dissident behavior and how those involved often become trapped in the nets of government crackdowns and investigations. Rich enhances the image with “thicket and twisted wire,” again implying a world of secret networks and a web of revolutionary activity.

All of that metaphorical bounty is contained in only the first four lines of the second stanza of “Rusted Legacy.” There is much more. As a self-professed follower of Karl Marx (the nineteenth-century German economist and political philosopher), Rich often explores the Marxist theory of dialectics—the endeavor to reach a solution to a problem by pitting opposing forces against each other in a series of questions, arguments, and answers. For Marx, and perhaps for Rich, the ultimate use of dialectics is in the concept of class struggle, in which the fight would lead to less distinction among citizens in society and to a communist economy. But in “Rusted Legacy,” “night’s velvet dialectic” is a strikingly poetic way of describing how sewers can be rivers and rivers “art’s unchartered aquifers” whose springhead opens into yet another possible metaphor, a fountain in a public garden. Water is an important symbol in this poem, both for its role as a source or a beginning and as a substance that can cause other materials to break down, an idea implied later in the poem. Here, Rich uses it as a transport, so to speak, to move the poem from a present city she asks the reader to imagine back to a city she recalls being in “while the arrests were going on.” The sewer waters of underground activity give way, metaphorically, to the garden fountains, which, in turn, lead Rich’s memory to the “trays with little glasses of cold water” offered to the revolutionaries before they were detained by police or military personnel. As usual, Rich’s point is political: governments are oppressive, and even helpless little villages are not safe from the big, trampling boots of capitalists. The poem is saved from overt political philosophizing simply by its admirable poetics. Rich makes nice use of the water metaphor, allowing it to guide both herself and the reader on a journey from the present to a historically significant moment (at least, in the poet’s mind) and back to the present: “tell me if this is not the same city.”

True to her contention that the personal is political and that poetry is a vehicle for exploring the two together, Rich moves “Rusted Legacy” into the intimate arena of her own life before closing. While the third stanza concentrates on mother-daughter allusions, incorporating both the personal (“I have forced myself to come back like a daughter / required to put her mother’s house in order”) and the political (“Accomplished criminal I’ve been but / can I accomplish justice here?”), it also continues the water metaphor. Likely, it also explains the title of the poem. It is no secret that Rich’s relationship with her parents was strained, at best, and, therefore, it is no surprise that she describes herself as “Faithless daughter / like stone.” But water, in the form of tears this time, is also present, and the idea that enough water can erode stone, taking advantage of its porous nature and exposing its vulnerability. Apparently, even a hard-hearted daughter has her weaknesses. Water does something else too. It aids the growth of rust, and even the toughest, hardest of metals is susceptible to it. By portraying herself as “scabbed with rust,” the poet exposes her own vulnerability through metaphor— perhaps softening the recognition of a dubious legacy.

It is unfortunate that some poets go beyond points where they should have ended. That is, they take a poem past its effective stopping point to belabor what does not need to be belabored. Rich does this with “Rusted Legacy,” a poem that is otherwise provocative and intellectually stimulating. In the last stanza, after describing herself as “scabbed with rust,” she falters into self-pity and sentimentality. There is a weak attempt to make another political statement in descrying the fact that there is “no one left / to go around gathering the full dissident story” (presumably, her own), but it carries little weight on which to end the poem. Probably the last two lines of “Rusted Legacy” actually reveal what is wrong with most of the last stanza: the tears are “for one self only.” Although the final statement, “each encysts a city,” may try to reconnect the personal to the political or social, it rings too much of pathos and is too overworked to be persuasive. Even the seldom used verb “encysts” is an obvious attempt at drama, but one without payoff.

Luckily for this poem, its , Rich said, “I have thought recently that my poetry exposes the scarring of the human psyche under the conditions of a runaway, racist capitalism. But that’s because my psyche is also scarred by these conditions.” This analysis of her own poetry may get at the root of why she has turned out numerous questionable works in the field of poetry. But “Rusted Legacy” is one of Rich’s good poems, and it need not be diminished by any that came before or after it.

Pamela Steed Hill