Poetry Analysis of Adrienne Rich's Twenty One Love Poems

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Poetry Analysis of Adrienne Rich's Twenty One Love Poems


Lit. of Love

April 26, 2002

Response Paper #4



XIX

Can it be growing colder when I begin

to touch myself again, adhesions pull away?

When slowly the naked face turns from staring backward

and looks into the present,

the eye of winter, city, anger, poverty, and death

and the lips part and say, I mean to go on living?

Am I speaking coldly when I tell you in a dream

or in this poem, There are no miracles?

(I told you from the first I wanted daily life,

this island of Manhatten was island enough for me.)

If I could let you know—

two women together is work

nothing in civilization has made simple,

two people together is a work

heroic in its ordinariness,

the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch

where the fiercest attention becomes routine

--look at the faces of those who have chosen it.

-By Adrienne Rich


In Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems, each poem gives insight into the life she has chosen for herself. These poems deal with her struggle to rise out of the drudge of city life and rise up to the beauty of love. The setting of these poems is on the island of Manhattan, and the reader is taken on the ups and downs of her life. These poems also tell of the beauty and passion between her and her lover. In poem XIX, the reader is introduced to the hardships of love that the speaker deals with. Throughout this poem the speaker asks herself questions, but also directs them to her lover.

In poem XIX one sees the darker side of her life in this City. In the first two lines of this poem the reader is confronted with this darker side. The speaker begins by asking, “Can it be growing colder when I begin to touch myself again, adhesions pull away?” This gives the poem a tone of pain and sadness. One would not ordinarily associate touching oneself (sexual pleasure) with a feeling of coldness, but this image gives the impression that this action has brought up a painful memory or an unhappy feeling.

The next line follows with: “When slowly the naked face turns from staring backward and looks into the present.” I believe this line expresses a shift of focus in her life: from the past to the present. The next line goes on to define what she sees when she turns to her present life. It is full of “ winter, city, anger, poverty, and death.” This is a hard present to face, and maybe that’s why her face feels naked when she looks at this bleak image of the world around her. It seems that what she sees overwhelms her because her lips ask: “I mean to go on living?” She seems to be questioning whether her life is worth living in the midst of what’s going on in her present life.

Her coldness continues when she asks next: “Am I speaking coldly when I tell you in a dream or in this poem…” I think this line supports that she is speaking to a lover, though it doesn’t sound like her lover is near since she only talks to her through poems and dreams. I believe there is also a connection here to poem XX, where she talks of losing the women she loved. What she wants to tell her lover in poem XIX is, “There are no miracles”. However, in poem XVIII, she says, “two people together is a miracle”. She has changed her mind somewhere between these poems; I think it is where she turns her face to the present. The line in this poem suggests that she begins to doubt that love can be as spontaneous as a miracle. In fact she says, “two women together is a work nothing in civilization has made simple”. Her perception of love has changed from “miraculous” to “hard work”. She perceives this kind of working relationship as “heroic in its ordinariness, the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch.” This image describes the kind of slow and tedious work that she believes a relationship needs to be successful. In the last line of the poem, she makes a call to “look at the faces of those who have chosen it”. I thought you could read this line in two ways: that she is asking herself or her lover to look at the people who have built this kind of successful relationship on hard work.

Some parts of this poem echo back to previous poems in the series and shows how her perceptions of love and relationships have developed. In poem XIX, she mentions that she wants a “daily life” on this island of Manhattan. She mentions that the “island of Manhattan was island enough for me” though it was big enough for both of them in poem XIV. Another contradiction she makes in this poem is that she calls two people a work “heroic in its ordinariness”, where in poem XVII she said, “we’re not heroines”. This contradiction again shows how her relationship with her lover is growing colder and more separate in the progression of these poems.

In the twenty-one poems, we (the reader) are given a glimpse into the speaker’s changing thoughts about love and life. Throughout, the speaker deals with the difficulties and beauty she finds in her life in the city. In poem XIX, we see that she questions the love she took for granted before, at places going against what she said in earlier poems. She has learned that relationship need real work to survive in the city of winter, anger and hunger. However, it is important to remember that this is the life she chose.

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