Adrienne Rich: The Anger in Restraint
One interpretation of 'Twenty-One Love Poems'
In 1976, Rich moved in with her lifelong partner Michelle Cliff and effectively came out as a lesbian. While her sexuality wasn’t the only thing that she found constraining, the language of “Twenty-One Love Poems” suggests that, at least in the years when the poems (1974-1976) were written, it was a defining factor.
Even as Rich defines her own rules, she chaffs at following them. Her “Twenty-One Love Poems” are actually 22 in number as one of the poems “(THE FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED)” is not numbered.
In “II,” Rich writes:
… I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…
And I laugh and fall dreaming again
Of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
To move openly together (Rich 144)
In this case Rich expresses the unfulfilled desire to be able to openly be with and share her happiness in the arms of the women that she loves. In 1974, Rich would have been hard-pressed to do so because homosexuality could not be displayed openly without severe cultural consequences.
“IV” contains a quote about a man who was held hostage and tortured: “My genitals have been the object of such a sadistic display” (15). The man says “Do whatever you can to survive” (17), which Rich turns into a command rather than a statement. Her “incurable anger” (18) and “unmendable wounds / …open further with tears / …and you are not in my arms” (18-20). This letter seems to strike a nerve with Rich. The word “genitals” could just as easily refer to Rich’s genitals, and her crying may come from the fact that she is unable to fill her need for love in ways that society accepts. Instead, she must follow the rules of those who “still control the world” (20).
“X,” which is about the halfway mark for the poems, Rich seems to come to a realization and a reconciliation to the inner urges that she is feeling:
that creatures must find each other for bodily comfort,
that voices of the psyche drive through the flesh
further than the dense brain could have foretold
that the planetary nights are growing cold for those
on the same journey, who want to touch
one creature-traveler clear to the end;
that without tenderness, we are in hell. (Rich 148)
It is important that Rich come to this conclusion because people cannot change their situations or face ridicule without the realization that what they need is more important than what society claims is right. “The psyche,” or subconscious, is a driving force that causes people to search for the affection and tenderness that they need regardless of gender. Once Rich knows that her desires are not choices, she also knows that unless she can find a way to fulfill her desires, she will be “in hell.”