In “Twenty-One Love Poems” by Adrienne Rich, each poem helps us understand her life. We as the readers get a “sneak peak” at the struggles she faces due to an almost ‘doomed’ love affair she has with another woman. The settings of her poems take place in Manhattan which she refers to as the “island of Manhattan” many times. There is a transitioning from beginning to end of this short collection of poems. Rich begins her collection with a jolly almost exuberant tone of passion and romance she shares with her lover. In poem IV she states “I open the mail, drinking delicious coffee, delicious music, my body still both light and heavy with you” (10-12). The speaker here is having physical contact with her lover, juxtaposed to the later poems where the lover is only a memory. The solitude she finds herself in is seen in poem XVIII: “Close between grief and anger, a space opens where I am Adrienne alone. And growing colder” (13-14). This is the exact point where we find out her sadness and loss she has experienced. I will focus on this side of the spectrum, Adrienne Rich’s transition into solitude.
Poem XVIII starts off with rain in the city, and the speaker is at a red light at Riverside. It can be interpreted that the rain is in correlation with her sadness and/or tears as to finding herself at a stop in her life, which is in correlation with the red light she is currently waiting on. This assertion can be made by the lines that follow: “the more I live, the more I think/ two people together is a miracle” (3-4). She is clearly being judgmental about relationships in general based on her experiences in love. Two people together don’t necessarily have to be viewed as a miracle like she puts it. Two women however, in her time, had to have a hidden love, completely unknown to the outside world.
The end result would be that their love for each other would have to always stay hidden, as to why she writes: “The story of our lives becomes our lives” (7). She continues by telling her lover that she knows her response already, and that it most likely will sound like something some Victorian poet would say. “… salt estranging sea” is what she pulls from Matthew Arnold’s “To Marguerite” which is mostly stating that we are all alone no matter the millions of people around us. Rich ends the poem by stating that she is in a state of “estrangement.” Estrangement is separation resulting from hostility, but in this case the estrangement can possibly be synonymous for a fresh start. What can be very hard to understand about the ending of this poem is that although “a clef of light” is visible, Adrienne feels more alone than ever. Although the start of something new can be both, good and frightening for someone, the start of this new day for Adrienne makes her feel colder than she ever has felt.
Rich continues in poem XIX to show the darker side of the “island of Manhattan.” The poem starts off with a question “Can it be growing colder when I begin to touch myself again, adhesion pull away?” (1-2) The tone here is grief and an uprising anger. It is interesting to observe that although the speaker is engaging in masturbation, she still feels the coldness that overcame her in poem XVIII. It is bizarre because someone wouldn’t normally associate the act of masturbation with coldness, unless, this event brings up a memory, a memory which gives her an unhappy feeling. She continues by stating that a naked face turns from looking backwards and is now looking to the past for comfort, she is ready to take on what is in front of her: ” the eye of winter, city, anger, poverty and death” (5).
This new present she is currently facing maybe too much for her to digest. This is why she contemplates if her life is worth living in the following line. She shifts the poem to address her lover by asking her a question. She asks her if she is speaking in a cold manner if she says love isn’t miraculous. This is a transitioning in her state of mind, new profound wisdom enters her and she shares it with us and her lover. She realizes that a relationship consisting of two women “is a work” just like any other relationship. Thos who are able to be in a healthy relationship can view their efforts as “heroic in its ordinariness.” The poem ends by Rich telling her love to “look at the faces of those who have chosen to be in love, that although it takes a lot of hard work, they are in the end happy.
Poem XX starts off very ambiguously, with the speaker stating that the conversation she and her lover were supposed to have keeps on replaying in her head. The Fact that it never happened haunts her till this day. She continues the poem by stating that she can distinguish a woman she once loved, the very woman who holds many secrets that built an immense amount of fear. She has tried to speak to this woman on many occasions but her “expressive head” is a “dragging down deeper” into a place where she is unable to make contact with her. The woman she is trying to speak to the entire time is herself. She comes into a self realization that she misses the woman she used to be.
In twenty- one love poems, Adrienne Rich gives us a peek into her changing thoughts about love and life. She uses contradictions to parallel the thinking process all of us have with love. There is a change of mind happening throughout all of the poems and this makes the poems and poet appear more “human-like.” What I mean is that in everyday life people have contradictions about many things and this is how Adrienne Rich does a great idea in humanizing thoughts. Her life is hard to live and she realizes that and so do we. I feel safe to say that she knows its tough but this is a life she has chosen. We experience her hardships in her life through her poetry and we see her transition into solitude.
Rich, Adrienne. 21 Love Poems http://www.sabrinaaiellophotography.com/files/Complete_21_Love_Poems_by_Adrienne_Rich.htm