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Adrienne Rich’s poems in The Fact of a Doorframe dramatize the conflict between what patriarchal society dictates women should be and what they are. In her earlier poems, like “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” she uses tight rhyme and careful control as she struggles to keep the conflict below the surface. However, her later poems, like “Rape” and “A Woman Dead in Her Forties,” are less cautious in their investigation to explore women’s issues and leave behind Rich’s past niceties in form. Finally, after Rich is able to find her own unique voice and the voice for women everywhere, is she able to reach her full potential as an artist and a revolutionary.
The poems from Rich’s early career, such as “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”(4) and “At a Bach Concert,”(5) written in 1951, possess a restrained visual rhythm and sparse use of enjambment. Both have exactly sixteen lines, though the first has three stanzas and the second has four. The restrictive nature of these poems’ forms is very representative of Rich’s personal struggle to abide by constrictions of patriarchal society.
The tone of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reflects this sense of restriction, using the binary opposition of Aunt Jennifer, bound by the confines of marriage, and tigers, free and independent. The tigers “do not fear the men beneath the tree;/ They pace in chivalric certainty.” By emphasizing the tiger’s fearlessness and certainty, Rich’s speaker accents Aunt Jennifer’s uncertainty. The speaker tells the reader that the tigers are fearless but does not include Aunt Jennifer in this description, leading the reader to believe the opposite. This binary opposition focuses further in the second stanza where Rich utilizes enjambment to create tension and draw focus to the stanza’s concluding lines: “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band/ Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.” This line especially accentuates the burden of domination and loss of self in marriage. The Uncle owns the Aunt as much as he does the band. Aunt Jennifer is not her own person; she has been bought and will belong to her husband until her death.
The next stanza begins at her demise, describing her dead hands as “terrified,” yet another reference to Aunt Jennifer’s antonymic relationship to the fearless tigers of the first stanza. The second line of this stanza, describing her hands as “still ringed by the ordeals she was mastered by,” clearly references her marriage as her master, making her a slave under its rule. The final couplet, “The tigers in the panel she has made/will go on prancing, proud and unafraid” gives the poem a cyclical nature, thus drawing the attention of the reader back to the tigers’ fearlessness, further accenting Aunt Jennifer’s fearful confined life. However boundary pushing the subject of the poem, the distant voice and traditional form with rhyming couplets makes the poem less than groundbreaking. This poem has turbulent undertones with its language of oppression and fear, yet the distances narrator gives Rich permission to deny these ideas as her own. As a woman trying to fit into a man’s world of writing, Rich is careful to color her world within the lines that have been pre-set.
Later in her career, Rich begins to take a bolder, razor sharp approach to her work as it becomes more overtly political. In “Rape,” (105-106) written in 1972, Rich addresses how the physical rape is only the beginning of the all-encompassing rape women must face when they decide to press charges in a male dominated system. It is not just the assailant who rapes the woman, but the system that distrusts her, questions, and berates her. The first stanza which begins “There is a cop who is both prowler and father:/ he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,/had certain ideals” sets up that the women being spoken to is familiar with the law, she has grown up around him and knows him. There is a certain opposition presented in the first line between the words prowler and father. The word prowler immediately evokes images of someone sneaking surreptitiously, shrouded in darkness, not to be trusted. A prowler enters a home uninvited, like a rapist enters a woman. Already drawing a correlation between the cop and the offender provokes feelings of distrust in someone who should be trusted. However, the next description of the cop is father, which ideally personifies the idealistic, average Joe with a family to protect. This direct opposition tears the reader between distrust and trust.
Already, this poem directly correlates to “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” in its use of binary opposition, yet in this poem, Rich immediately directs her readers’ attention to this. By putting this man, this cop in the victim’s direct neighborhood, the reader knows this man is an immediate part of her world, and just as the rapist has infiltrated her world, the cop has entered her safety zone. The stanza’s closing, “You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,/ on horseback, one hand touching his gun” presents an image where the cop is above the woman the speaker addresses, elevated not only by riding horseback, but by his position of authority. The cop comes to her like a classic fairytale hero would on horseback, gallantly striding to the damsel’s rescue. Yet even in her victimized state, the neighborhood father who has grown with her family keeps his hand on his gun representing his distrust of the woman. Also the gun serves as a phallic symbol as well, loaded and ready with its bullet to penetrate another person against their will just as the rapist is. The speaker continues “You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:/ he has access to machinery that could kill you” once again echoing the image of a rapist in the cop, his very presence forcing him to ‘know’ him. The double meaning of know comes into play here, with the idea of knowing someone biblically, once again clearly creating a dichotomy between the cop as a knight in shining armor and as a man capable of unspeakable horror.
This unspeakable horror is exactly what the cop wants the woman to discuss. The speaker continues “his hands type out the details/and he wants them all/ but the hysteria in your voice please him best.” Even though the cop is supposed to be the gallant rescuer, he enjoys the woman’s pain, her hysterics as the rapist most likely did in the act of raping her. The use of the word ‘pleases’ which, like know, also can have a sexual connotation, sexualizes the act of dictation of the event, makes the cop a similar dark and evil figure like the rapist. Here Rich closely examines the revictimization that happens in the recounting of the event itself and in society’s distrust of the women who go to the authorities in these situations.
What makes this recounting worse for the victim here is not simply the retelling but the satisfaction the cop gets from it as “he knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined; / he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.” The cop seems to think he knows better; he assumes he knows this woman and mentally categorizes her as either a “nut or a slut.” Rich does not throw around such foul language; however, the stench of such labels hangs in the air.
Rich utilizes repetition in the final stanza to further this point, and to show the fear and desperation that the woman feels. In this stanza the speaker continues, “he has access to the machinery that could get you put away;” refocusing once again on the machinery that the cop has, the power that society has awarded him. The speaker goes on from here to use more repetition saying “and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,/ and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,/ your details sound like the portrait of your confessor,/ will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?” The easiest assumption to draw here is that the cop is indeed her physical rapist, but I think Rich is asserting more than that here. She is saying that the cop, symbolic of the very system set up to protect people, is just as guilty as the perpetrator and just as guilty of rape in its treatment of her. Rich comes a long way from “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” to “Rape,” abandoning rhyme and making politically charged and overt statements about the treatment of women. However, she still sticks to neat stanzas and is removed from the situation, distancing herself from the victim by making it another person, never really coming fully into the poem.
It is later in her career when Rich fully realizes her potential as an artist to speak for those not spoken for, to go further, become more overt, more political. Rich finds her voice and begins to speak to the issues including herself in them. In “A Woman Dead in Her Forties”(154-159) a deeply moving eight part poem that Rich notes took three years to write, Rich finally tears through the safety and includes herself, using first person and abandoning stanza and all established form to speak the unspeakable. The poem is a journey through disease from beginning to end, in this case what I interpreted to be a threnody for her dead friend.
Rich begins in poem one with an incisive immediate hook: “Your breasts/ sliced-off The scars/ dimmed as they would have to be/ years later.” Rich plunged violently into this poem immediately and mercilessly approaching mastectomy. The voice has no mercy for the reader, as the disease has had no mercy for the woman, her friend. The speaker wants her readers to feel that pain, that slice and knows that the most effective method is not to mince words. She continues to describe a group of friends happily topless as the woman uncomfortably take off her top as well, revealing her scars. “ I barely glance at you/ as if my look could scald you/ though I’m the one who loved you,” says the speaker in a tone that reveals her shame and her cowardice for not being able to face this disease both literally and figuratively with her lover. The speaker goes on: “I want to touch my fingers/ to where your breasts had been/ but we never did such things.” In a relationship where touches and embraces are so familiar, Rich is at a loss to embrace this new change in landscape.
In part five of the poem, Rich’s speaker once again confronts her friend: “You played heroic, necessary/ games with death,” almost trying to provoke her friend into some kind of reaction, wanting her friend to give into fear, show emotion, do something other than what she is doing. The speaker goes on to say “I wish you were here tonight I want/ to yell at you/ Don’t accept/ Don’t give in/ But would I be meaning your brave/ irreproachable life, you dean of women or/ your unfair, unfashionable, unforgivable/ woman’s death?” Rich utilizes alliteration to highlight her speaker’s real grievance here, her friend’s death and not her friend’s attitudes. The repetition of the prefix “un” and the heightened language here, reaching their peak with “unforgivable,” serves as the climax for this piece of the poem. By ending here, without any catharsis, the reader is left in the same state of disarray as the speaker.
In eight, Rich touches upon almost all the body of “A Woman Dead in Her Forties,” and finally is able to mourn her friend saying “ I understand/ life and death now, the choices” finally forgiving her friend for being human, being weak, allowing herself to die. In the last heartbreaking lines the speaker laments, “I would have touched my fingers/ to where your breasts had been/ but we never did such things.” Here Rich’s speaker now knows the unfortunate sting of regret and cannot escape it.
Rich finally realizes that she has had the power all along to touch women’s pain everywhere, speak the unspeakable as poetry is meant to, reveal the mysteries of women. Rich had this power and did not use it, but by speaking of her regret, abandoning the stuffy restrained form set by her male peers, Rich loudly declares that she will not stand silenced any longer. She will have no more regrets, she will touch women’s pain everywhere no matter how hard it may be. Adrienne Rich struggled with women’s issues throughout her career, but it was only when she began to use the first person, abandon form, and take on a more overt and political voice that she was able to realize her potential not only as a poet, but as a woman.
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