TCS: Adrienne Rich and the Meaning of We

   Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.

It was an old theme even for me:
Language cannot do everything –

– Adrienne Rich


Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was born May 16th; American poet, essayist, and feminist; an outspoken advocate for female solidarity and creativity. She is credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” In 1950, her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by renowned poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Auden wrote the introduction to the published volume. In 1997, Rich famously declined the National Medal of Arts, in protest of the vote by the Republican-majority in the House of Representatives to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In the 47 years in between, she published at least 20 more poetry collections; won too many fellowships, awards, and medals to count; published five books of well-reasoned and impassioned essays on women and their rights, motherhood, lesbianism, the privilege of white feminism, the invisibility of women scholars and artists of color, art in society, the clash of politics and culture, and the art of poetry. Before she was done, there were six more books of poetry, and four more books of essays and nonfiction. She died at age 82 in 2012, after years of suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

It is impossible to imagine the “Second Wave” of Feminism without her.



XVIII. (Dedications)

by Adrienne Rich

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
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.

“XVIII” from An Atlas of the Difficult World, © 1991 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company


In a Classroom

by Adrienne Rich

Talking of poetry, hauling the books
arm-full to the table where the heads
bend or gaze upward, listening, reading aloud,
talking of consonants, elision,
caught in the how, oblivious of why:
I look in your face, Jude,
neither frowning nor nodding,
opaque in the slant of dust-motes over the table:
a presence like a stone, if a stone were thinking
What I cannot say, is me. For that I came.

“In a Classroom” from Time’s Power, © 1989 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company


Miracle Ice Cream

by Adrienne Rich

Miracle’s truck comes down the little avenue,
Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls,
and, yes, you can feel happy
with one piece of your heart.

Take what’s still given: in a room’s rich shadow
a woman’s breasts swinging lightly as she bends.
Early now the pearl of dusk dissolves.
Late, you sit weighing the evening news,
fast-food miracles, ghostly revolutions,
the rest of your heart.

“Miracle Ice Cream” from Dark Fields of the Republic, © 1995 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company


A Ball is for Throwing

by Adrienne Rich

See it, the beautiful ball
Poised in the toyshop window,
Rounder than sun or moon.
Is it red? is it blue? is it violet?
It is everything we desire,
And it does not exist at all.

Non-existent and beautiful? Quite.
In the rounding leap of our hands,
In the longing hush of air,
We know what that ball could be,
How its blues and reds could spin
To a headier violet.

Beautiful in the mind,
Like a word we are waiting to hear,
That ball is construed, but lives
Only in flash of flight,
From the instant of release
To the catch in another’s hand.

And the toy withheld is a token
Of all who refrain from play–
The shopkeepers, the collectors
Like Queen Victoria,
in whose adorable doll’s house
Nothing was ever broken.

“A Ball Is for Throwing” from Selected Poems, © 2018 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company


In Those Years

by Adrienne Rich

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

“In Those Years” from Dark Fields of the Republic, © 1995 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company


For the Record

by Adrienne Rich

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.

“For the Record” from Your Native Land, Your Life, © 1986 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company



by Adrienne Rich

I needed fox Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them sharp truth distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen’s courage in vixen terms

For a human animal to call for help
on another animal
is the most riven the most revolted cry on earth
come a long way down
Go back far enough it means tearing and torn endless and sudden
back far enough it blurts
into the birth-yell of the yet-to-be human child
pushed out of a female the yet-to-be woman

“Fox” from Fox, © 2001 by Adrienne Rich – Norton & Company


For the Dead

by Adrienne Rich

I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer

The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself

I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped

or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight

“For the Dead” from Diving Into the Wreck, © 1973 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company



by Adrienne Rich

I’ve said: I wouldn’t ever
keep a cat, a dog,
a bird —
chiefly because
I’d rather love my equals.
Today, turning
in the fog of my mind,
I knew, the thing I really
couldn’t stand in the house
is a woman
with a mindful of fog
and bloodletting claws
and the nerves of a bird
and the nightmares of a dog.

“Apology” from The Diamond Cutters, © 1955 by Adrienne Rich – Harper and Brothers


What Kinds of Times are These

by Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light –
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

“What Kinds of Times Are These” from Dark Fields of the Republic, © 1995 by Adrienne Rich – W.W. Norton & Company




  • reading poetry in a bookstore
  • City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco – exterior corner, and the Poetry Room  

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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3 Responses to TCS: Adrienne Rich and the Meaning of We

  1. Such interesting poems! I especially enjoyed “In Those Years.”

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