Adrienne Rich: The Anger in Restraint
One interpretation of 'Twenty-One Love Poems'
The next several poems explore the tenderness of love and lovemaking and the internal freedom that comes with accepting one’s own nature. By making the internal change, Rich is able to face the inevitable external conflicts that will come with her moving in with Cliff, and those conflicts become visible in “XV.”
Laying on a beach together becomes a metaphor for bringing the relationship into the open. Wind and sand become the instruments to run the two lovers off the beach. They are then faced with narrow prisoner cots that prevent them from sleeping together.
However, these circumstances are not their fault and Rich is okay with the idea that they failed because they still made the choice to be together. “Only she who says / she did not choose, is the loser in the end” (14-15). In the context of Rich’s life, had she remained married to Alfred Conrad rather than getting a divorce in 1970, she may have said at the end of her life that she did not choose to marry him.
Rich is quoted in The Guardian as saying that she married Conrad “in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family.” This statement doesn’t speak as much to choosing to love as to choosing to be away from family. It is with Cliff that Rich has to make a conscious choice to love, and it is the choice to love that is important, not just for Rich, but for everyone.
“XVII” talks about love as an accident and not fate, and that love shouldn’t have to come with penance. She uses the idea of a tape recorder as a way to communicate to the future about how “we tried to love” (13) and “the forces they had ranged against us” (14) and “the forces we had ranged within us / within us and against us, against us and within us” (15-16). The similarities of the phrasing evoke not just that the outside forces are against them, but that there are forces within that are also against them. The battle still isn’t all external; it is also in the minds of Rich and her lover.
“XVIII” continues the inner exploration as Rich realizes that “two people together is a miracle” (4). The poem explores ideas of separation with words like “breaks” and “cleft,” but perhaps its most evocative phrase is “salt estranging sea” (9). Lifted from an undisclosed Victorian poet, the phrase seems to refer to the idea of oceans separating people – whether those are the real oceans of location or the oceans of misunderstanding isn’t clear in the poem. What is clear is that this estrangement, this inability to be with the person that she loves, leaves “Adrienne alone” (14).
The space that “Adrienne alone” occupies is “close between grief and anger” (13) and seems to be illuminated by “a cleft of light---?” (12) This space appears to also be contributing to Rich “growing colder” (14). This cleft of light could be the idea of revealed information or a forming conclusion that Rich doesn’t want to believe – possibly that her partner isn’t ready to come out. Yet, the more she contemplates the situation the more she realizes that the revelation is true, and it is the cold of the intellect that she feels growing while still feeling the grief of not being able to be together and the anger of being kept apart by unseen forces.