Rich is one of my favorite poets. Her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality was one of the first pieces of feminist writing that I found particularly provoking, that I sat with for a long time, and that shaped my early political consciousness. She was imperfect to be sure — aren’t we all? — but I still re-read many of her poems regularly, and maintain a strong emotional connection to her work.
My favorite of Rich’s poems is one of the most widely-hated by Poetry People: Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law. A bit of it:
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.
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 in the woolly steam. They are probably angels,
since nothing hurts her anymore, except
each morning’s grit blowing into her eyes.
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!
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill
We move but our words stand
and this is verbal privilege
And Diving Into the Wreck is one of her most acclaimed.
We lost a good one today.