Adrienne Rich: The Anger in Restraint
One interpretation of 'Twenty-One Love Poems'
When Adrienne Rich died in 2012, her New York Times obituary headline read “Adrienne Rich, Beyond the Anger.” According to Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, Rich, who was married to a man and would only come out as a lesbian publicly in the 1970s, had her third child at the age of 30 and claimed that she “couldn’t foresee a future different from the past two years of raising children and being almost continuously angry” (418).
While Rich’s characterization as an angry poet may be accurate in as far as it goes, her obituary does nothing to explain why Rich was angry. Instead, it points to Rich’s political activities as the results of her anger without getting to the bottom of the cause of that anger.
According to Showalter, W.H. Auden said that the poems in A Change in World “were neatly and moderately dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs” (411). These were “good girl” poems, and Rich was acutely aware of it.
However, if the poems were well-crafted and in the style of the times, they were also a foreshadowing of things to come. People can only remain restrained for so long before they break the confines of that which is restraining them, and Rich was no different. The Fact of a Doorframe, published in 2002, is a retrospective of poems that Rich assembled herself. The book contains poetry from Rich’s early years, including her award-winning first book, A Change of World.
The poem “Storm Warnings,” published in A Change of World, suggests in its title that there is something coming, and while the narrator in the poem may not realize exactly what the storm represents, she walks “from window to closed window, watching / Boughs strain against the sky” (6-7). Even the sky, something normally thought of as open, is holding the limbs of the trees back from their purpose.
The narrator “draws the curtains” (22), further closing herself off from the coming storm, and lights “candles sheathed in glass” (23) because “These are the things we learned to do / Who live in troubled regions” (27-28). Those troubled regions could be her unrecognized feelings for someone of the same gender. These feelings would have been abhorrent in the 1950s even if Rich recognizes that she cannot change them. Thus, she closes herself and her light off from the storm that those feelings are bound to bring.
In the poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Aunt Jennifer is a weaver who has created screens that feature tigers that are trapped on those screens. These tigers prance and stalk without paying heed to the hunters that are hunting them. Tigers are a symbol of energy. Esso (now Exxon) sold petroleum under the slogan “put a tiger in your tank” after World War II restrictions on gas consumption were eliminated. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes has used Tony the Tiger to represent getting the day off to an energetic start since 1951 – the same year that A Change of World was published.
The pacing tigers on the screen evoke images of the raw power trapped in cages at the zoo. The poem continues with the idea of restraint by mentioning how difficult it is to pull the ivory needle through the wool and how heavy “Uncle’s” gold band is on Aunt Jennifer’s finger. There is no sense of joy in this depiction of marriage and its constraints. Aunt Jennifer’s death will find her hands “ringed with ordeals that she was mastered by” (10). Those ordeals limited Aunt Jennifer as they controlled her instead of Aunt Jennifer gaining mastery over them. Even in these early poems, Rich is struggling against the restraints put on her by society.
In 1956, Rich began marking her poetry with the year because Rich wanted her readers to know that she was changing as her poetry changed. Labeling each poem with a year also rejected the idea that a poem should be considered outside of the poet and the context, in which it was written and gives readers a better chance to imagine what Rich was going through in her life and what she was contextually writing about in popular culture and news. (See Rhonda Pettit's article.)