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TheDream of a Common

Language
POEMS 1974-1977

Adrienne Rich

" ... a whole new poetry beginning here."


This line, from the concluding poem of
Adrienne Rich's new book, describes an en­
counter between two women. And yet it also
illuminates the entire book.
The "dream of a common language" has
always been Rich's theme-"women's
struggle to name the world," as she says, "to
explode the oppressor's language." What
happens in this book is that the "common
language" begins to form itself into the "new
poetry" under the pressure of the poet's need
to explore "woman-to-woman relationships:
mothers and daughters, sister-siblings, lover
and lover, friendships, and the spirit-sisters of
a collective past and future. Love between
women, both consummated and unconsum­
mated. Identity and separation. The long tra­
dition of women's work-practical and emo­
tional. Loss, grief, and the reintegration of
body and mind, flesh and spirit. The necessity
for women to find each other, both for pure
survival and for the transformation of all so­
cial institutions."
The Dream of a Common Language is a
continuation of the author's life work in
poetry, and is integral to the final vision of Of
Woman Born. The book makes her an even
more important-and now a necessary­
writer.

JACKET DESIGN BY ROSA UNO LORBER


THE DREAM
OFA
COMMON
LANGUAGE

POEMS 1974-1977
By Adrienne Rich

TWENTY-ONE LOVE POEMS

OF WOMAN BORN: Motherhood


as Experience and Institution

POEMS: SELECfED AND NEW, IQ;o-1974


DIVING INTO THE WRECK

THE WILL TO OIANGE

LEAFLETS

NECESSITIES OF LIFE

SNAPSHOTS OF A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

THE DIAMOND CUTTERS

A OIANGE OF WORLD
OFA

COMMON

LANGUAGE

POEMS 1974-1977

ADRIENNE RICH
Copyright© 1978 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Pub­
lished simultaneously in Canada by George J. McLeod Limited, Toronto.
Printed in the United States of America.

First Edition

Some of these poems originally appeared in the following periodicals: Amazon


Quarterly, Chrysalis, College English, Field, Heresies, The Little Magazine,
Moving Out, Ms., New Boston Review, Sinister Wisdom, 13th Moon.

Twenty-one Love Poems was first published in a limited edition, designed and
hand-printed by Bonnie Carpenter at Effie's Press, Emeryville, California.

Some phrases in the poem "Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff" are quoted from
actual diaries and letters of Paula Modersohn-Becker, as translated by Liselotte
Erlanger. As yet, no English edition of the Modersohn-Becker manuscripts ex­
ists.

BOOK DESIGN BY ANTONINA KRASS

TYPEFACES USED ARE JANSON AND V.I.P. ELECTRA

MANUFACTURED BY VAIL-BALLOU PRESS, INC.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data


Rich, Adrienne.
The dream of a common language.
"Twenty-one love poems": p.
1. Women-Poetry. I. Rich, Adrienne.
Twenty-one love poems. 19 78. II. Title.
PS3;3;.h33D7 1978 8tt'.5'4 77-- 2.8156
ISBN o 393 04502. 1 cloth edition
ISBN o 393 04510 2. paper edition

123456i890
I go where I love and where I am loved,
into the snow;

I go to the things I love


with no thought of duty or pity

-H. D. The Flowering of the Rod


CONTENTS

POWER

Power 3
Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev 4
Origins and History of Consciousness 7
Splittings 10
Hunger 12
To a Poet 15
Cartographies of Silence 16
The Lioness 21

II
TWENTY -ONE LOVE POEMS

I. Wherever in this city, screens flicker


II. I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming
III. Since we're not young, weeks have to do time
IV. I come home from you through the early light of spring
V. This apartment full of books could crack open
VI. Your small hands, precisely equal to my own
VII. What kind of beast would turn its life into words
VIII. I can see myself years back at Sunion

IX •
IX. Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live 29
X. Your dog, tranquil and innocent, dozes through 29
XI. Every peak is a crater. This is the law of volcanoes 30
XII. Sleeping, turning in hiTn like planets 30
XIII. l11e rules break like a thermometer 31
XIV. It was your vision of the pilot 31
(THE FLOATI:><G POEM, U:'I::-:UMBERED) 32
XV. If I lay on that beach with you 32
XVI. Across a city from you, I'm with you 33
XVII. No one's fated or doomed to love anyone 33
XVIII. Rain on the West Side Highway 34
XIX. Can it be growing colder when I begin 34
XX. That conversation we were always on the edge H
XXI. l11e dark lintels, the blue and foreign stones 3;

III
N OT SOMEWHERE ELSE,
BUT HERE

Not Somewhere Else, but Here


Upper Broadway
Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff
Nights and Days
Sibling Mysteries
A Woman Dead in Her Forties
Mother-Right
Natural Resources
Toward the Solstice
Transcendental Etude

• X •
I

POWER
POWER

Livi ng in the earth-deposits of our h istory

Today a ba ckhoe di vulged out of a cru mbli ng flank of earth


one bottle amber perfect a h u ndred-year-old
cure for fever or mela ncholy a tonic
for livi ng on this earth i n the winters of this cli mate

Today I was readi ng about Marie Curie:


she must have known she s uffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurati ng ski n of h er fi nger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a penci l

She died a famous woma n denying


h er wou nds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as h er power

1 974

. 3 .
PHANTASIA FOR ELVIRA SHATAYEV
(leader of a women's climbing team, all of whom dit-d in a
storm on Lenin Peak, August 1974. l�1ter, Shataye\"'s
husband found and buried the bodies.)

Th e cold felt cold u nti l our blood


grew col der then the wind
di ed down and we slept

If in this sleep I speak


it's with a voice no longer personal
(I wa nt to say with voices)
When the wi nd tore ou r breath from us at last
we had no need of words
For months for years each one of us
had felt h er own yes growi ng in her
sl owly formi ng as she stood at windows wai ted
for tra ins mended her rucksack combed h er ha i r
\V hat we were to learn was si mply what w e had
up here as out of all words that yes gathered
its forces fused itself a nd only just in ti me
to meet a No of n o degrees
the black h ole suck i ng the world i n

I feel you cl i mbi ng toward me


your cleated bootsoles leavi ng their geometri c bite
col ossa lly embossed on microscopi c crystals
as when I trai led you in the Ca ucasus
Now I am further
ahead tha n ei ther of us dreamed anyone wou ld be
I have become

. 4 .
the white snow packed like asphalt by the wi nd
the women I love l ightly flung agai nst the mountain
that bl ue sky
our frozen eyes unri bboned through the storm
we could have stitch ed that bl ueness together like a quilt

You come ( I know this) with your l ove you r l oss


strapped to your body with your tape-recorder ca mera
ice-pick against advisement
to give us burial in the snow a nd i n your m i nd
While my body l i es out here
flashing like a prism into your eyes
how could you sl eep You cli mbed h ere for yourself
we cli mbed for ourselves

When you have buried us told your story


ours does not end we strea m
i nto the unfinished the u nbegun
the possible
Every cel l 's core of h eat pulsed out of us
i nto the th in air of the u niverse
th e armature of rock beneath these snows
th is mounta i n wh ich has taken the i mpri nt of our m i nds
through cha nges elemental a nd m i nute
as those we underwent
to bri ng each other here
choos i ng ourselves each oth er a nd this l ife
whose every breath a nd grasp a nd fu rther footh old
is somewhere stil l enacted a nd conti n u i ng

In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready


and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back

; .
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love

In the diary as the wind began to tear


at the tents over us I wrote:
We know now we have always been in danger
down in our separateness
and now up here together but till now
we had not touched our strength

In the diary torn from my fi ngers I had written:


What does love mean
what does it mean "to survive"
A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow We will not live
to settle for less We have dreamed of this
all of our lives

1 974

. 6 .
ORIGI N S AND H I STORY
OF CONSCIOUSN E SS

Night-life . Letters , j ournals , bo urbon


sl oshed i n the glass. Poems cruci fied on the wall ,
dissected , their bird-wi ngs severed
like trophies . No one lives in this room
without livi ng through some ki nd of crisis.

No one l i ves i n th is room


without confronti ng the white ness of the wal l
behi nd the poems , pla nks of books ,
photographs of dead h eroi nes .
Wi thout contemplati ng last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a comm o n la nguage.

Th i nki ng of lovers , their bli nd fa ith , thei r


experi enced cruci fixi ons ,
my envy is not si mpl e . I h ave dreamed of goi ng to bed
as walki ng i nto clear water ri nged by a snowy wood
white as cold sh eets , thi nki ng , I'll freeze in there.
My bare feet are nu mbed a l ready by the snow
but the water
is mild , I s i nk a nd fl oat
like a warm amphibious animal
that has broken the net , has run
through fields of s now leavi ng no pri nt;
th is water wash es off th e scent-
You are clear now

7 .
of the hunter, the trapper
the wardens of the mind-

yet the warm animal dreams on


of a nother animal
swi m m i ng under the snow- flecked surface of the pool ,
and wakes , a nd sleeps agai n .

N o one sleeps i n this room without


the dream of a common la nguage .

II

I t was si mple to meet you , simple t o take your eyes


i nto m i n e , saying: these are eyes I have known
from the first. . . . It was si mple to touch you
agai nst the hacked background, the gra i n of what we
had been , the choices , years . . . . It was even simple
to take each other's l i ves i n our hands, as bodi es .

What is not si mple: to wake fro m drown i ng


from where the ocean beat i nside us like an afterbi rth
into thi s common , acute parti cularity
these two selves who wa lked half a l i feti me u ntouch i ng­
to wake to something deceptively si mple: a glass
sweated with dew, a ri ng of the telephone, a screa m
of someone beaten up far down in the street
causi ng each of us to listen to her own inward screa m

knowi ng th e m i nd of the mugger a nd the mugged


as any woman must who sta nds to survive this city,
this century , this life . . .

. 8 .
each of us havi ng loved the flesh in its clenched or l oosened beauty
better than trees or music (yet loving th ose too
as if they were flesh-a nd they are-but the flesh
of bei ngs unfathomed as yet in our roughl y literal life) .

III

It's si mple to wake from sleep wi th a stra nger,


dress , go out, drink coffee,
enter a life agai n . It isn't si mple
to wake from sl eep i nto the neighborhood
of one neither stra nge nor fa miliar
whom we have ch osen to trust. Trusting, u ntrusti ng,
we l owered ou rselves into this , l et ou rselves
downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered
over th e u nsearched . . . . We did thi s . Conceived
of each other, concei ved each other in a da rkness
which I remember as drench ed in light.
I want to call thi s , l i fe .

But I ca n't call it l i fe u ntil we start to move


beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodi es are gia nt shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes ou r i nner darkness, a nd sleeps
l ike a du mb beast, h ead on her paws, in the corner.

1 972:-- 1 974

. 9 .
SPLIITI NGS

I.

My body opens over Sa n Fra ncisco like the day-


light ra i n i ng down each pore crying the change of light
I am not with her I have been waki ng off and on
all night to that pai n n ot si mply absence but
the presence of the past destructive
to l i vi ng h ere and now Yet if I could i nstruct
myself, if we could learn to learn from pai n
even a s i t grasps u s i f the m i nd , the m i nd that l i ves
in thi s body could refuse to l et itself be crushed
in that grasp it would loosen Pai n wou ld have to sta nd
off from me and l isten its dark breath sti ll on me
but the m i nd could begin to speak to pai n
and pai n would have to answer :

We are older now


we have met before these are my hands before your eyes
my figure blotting out all that is not mine
I am the pain of division creator of divisions
it is I who blot your lover from you
and not the time-zones nor the miles
It is not separation calls me forth but I
who am separation And remember
I have no existence apart from you

2.
I beli eve I am choosing someth i ng new
not to suffer uselessl y yet sti ll to feel
Does the i nfa nt memorize the body of the mother
and create her in absence? or si mply cry
pri mordial loneli ness? does the bed of the strea m
once di verted mourni ng remember wetness?

. 10 .
But we, we l i ve so much in these
configurati ons of the past I choose
to separate her from m y past we have not sha red
I choose not to suffer uselessly
to detect pri mordial pa i n as it stalks toward me
flashing its bleak torch in my eyes blotti ng out
her particular bei ng th e details of her l ove
I will n ot be divided from her or from myself
by myths of sepa ration
wh ile her mind and body in Ma nhatta n are more with me
tha n the smell of eucalyptus coolly burning on these hills


The world tells me I am its creature
I am raked by eyes b rush ed by hands
I want to crawl i nto her for refuge lay my h ead
in the space between her breast and shoulder
abnegati ng power for l ove
as women have done or hidi ng
from power in her love l i ke a ma n
I refuse these givens the spli tti ng
between l ove a nd acti on I am choosi ng
n ot to suffer usel essly and n ot to use her
I ch oose to l ove this ti me fo r once
with all my intel ligence

1 974

• II •
HUNGER

(FOR AUDRE WRDE)

1.

A fogged hill-scene on an enormous continent,


intimacy rigged with terrors,
a sequence of blurs the Chinese painter's ink-stick planned,
a scene of desolation comforted
by two human figures recklessly exposed,
leaning together in a sticklike boat
in the foreground. Maybe we look like this,
I don't know. I'm v.·ondering
whether we even have what we think we have­
lighted windows signifying shelter,
a film of domesticity
over fragile roofs. I know I'm partly somewhere else­
huts strung across a drought-stretched land
not mine, dried breasts, mine and not mine, a mother
watching my children shrink with hunger.
I live in my Western skin,
my Western vision, torn
and flung to what I can't control or even fathom.
Quantify suffering, you could rule the world.

2.

They can rule the world while they can persuade us


our pain belongs in some order.
Is death by famine worse than death by suicide,
than a life of famine and suicide, if a black lesbian dies,
if a white prostitute dies, if a woman genius
starves herself to feed others,
self-hatred battening on her body?
Something that kills us or leaves us half-alive
is raging under the name of an "act of god"

0 12 0
in Chad , i n Niger, in the Upper Volta-
yes , that male god that acts on us and on our children ,
that male State that acts on us a nd on our chi ldren
ti ll our bra i ns are blunted by malnutriti on,
yet sharpened by the passion for survi va l ,
o u r powers expended da ily o n the struggle
to hand a kind of l i fe on to our ch i ldren ,
to cha nge reality for our l overs
even in a si ngle trembli ng drop of water .


We can look at each other through both our lifeti mes
like those two figures in the sticklike boat
fl u ng together in the Ch i nese i nk-scene;
even our i nti macies are rigged with terror .
Quantify sufferi ng? My guilt at least is open ,
I sta nd convi cted by all my convictions-
you , too . We shri nk from tou ch i ng
our power, we shri nk away, we starve ourselves
and each other, we're scared shitless
of what it could be to take and u se our love,
hose it on a city, on a world ,
to wield and guide its spray, destroy i ng
poi sons , parasites , rats , vi ruses-
like the terrible mothers we l ong a nd dread to be.


The decis ion to feed the world
is the real decision. No revol ution
has chosen it. For that choi ce requi res
that women shall be free .
I choke on the taste of bread i n North Ameri ca
but the taste of hunger in N orth Ameri ca
is poisoning me. Yes , I'm ali ve to write these words,
to leaf through Kollwitz's women

0 13 0
huddli ng the stri cken children i nto their stri cken arms
the "mothers" drai ned of milk, the "survi vors" driven
to self-abortion , self-starvation, to a vision
bitter, concrete , a nd wordless.
I'm alive to want more than l i fe ,
want it for others starvi ng a nd u nbor n ,
t o n a m e the deprivations bor i ng
i nto my will , my affecti ons , i nto the bra i ns
of daughters , sisters , lovers caught in the crossfi re
of terrorists of the m i nd .
I n the black m i rror of the subway wi ndow
hangs my own face, hollow with a nger and desi re .
Swathed i n exhausti o n , on the trampled newsprint,
a woman shields a dead child from the camera .
The passion to be i nscribes her body.
U ntil we fi nd each other , we are alone.

1 974- 1 97 5

. 14 .
TO A POET

Ice spl i ts under the metal


shovel another day
hazed light off fogged panes
cruelty of wi nter landlocked your life
wrapped round you i n you r twenti es
an old bathrobe dragged down
with mi lksta i ns tearstai ns dust

Scraping eggcrust from the child's


dri ed dish ski mming the ski n
from cooled milk wri nging diapers
La nguage fl oats at the va nishi ng-poi nt
incarnate breathes the fl u orescent bulb
primary states the scarred gra i n of the fl oor
and on the ceili ng i n torn plaster la ughs imago

and I have fears that you will cease to be


before your pen has glean'd your teeming brain

for you are not a sui cide


but no-one calls this murder
Small mouth s , needy , suck you: This is love

I write this not for you


who fight to write your own
words fighti ng up the fa lls
but for a n other woma n d u mb
with loneli ness dust seepi ng plasti c bags
with ch ildren in a house
where la nguage fl oats and spins
abortion m

th e bowl

1 9 74
CARTOGRAPHIES OF SILENCE

1.

A conversation begins
with a lie. And each

speaker of the so-called common language feels


the ice-floe split, the drift apart

as if powerless , as if up agai nst


a force of n ature

A poem can begin


with a lie. And be torn up.

A conversati on has other laws


recharges itself with its own

false energy . Cannot be torn


up. Infiltrates our blood . Repeats itself.

Inscribes with its unreturning stylus


the isolati on it denies .

2.
The classical music stati on
playi ng hour upon hour in the apartment

the picking up a nd pick i ng up


a nd aga i n pick i ng up the telephone

The syllables utteri ng


the old script over and over

. !6 .
The loneli ness of the l i ar
livi ng i n the formal network o f the lie

twi sting the dials to drown the terror


beneath the u nsaid word


The technol ogy of s i lence
The rituals , etiquette

the blurri ng of terms


silence n ot absence

of words or music or even


raw sounds

Silence ca n be a plan
rigorously executed

the bluepri nt to a life

It is a presence
it has a h istory a form

Do not confuse it
with any ki nd of absence


How calm , how inoffensive these words
begin to seem to me

though begun in grief and a nger


Can I break through thi s fi l m of the abstract

without wound i ng myself or you

. 17 .
there is enough pai n here

Th is is why the classical or the jazz m usic station plays?


to give a ground of mea n i ng to our pai n?


The silence that stri ps bare:
In Dreyer's Passion of Joan

Falconetti 's face , hair shorn , a great geography


mutely surveyed by the ca mera

If there were a poetry where this could happen


not as blank spaces or as words

stretched like a ski n over meanings


but as silence falls at the end

of a n ight through which two people


have talked till dawn

6.
The scream
of an illegitimate voice

It has ceased to hear itself, therefore


it asks itself

How do I exist?

Thi s was the silence I wanted to break in you


I had questi ons but you would n ot a nswer

I had a nswers but you could not use them


Th is is useless to you a nd perhaps to others

. !8 .

It was an old theme even for me:
La nguage ca nnot do everyth i ng-

chalk it on the walls where the dead poets


l i e in thei r ma usoleums

If at th e will of the poet the poem


could tu rn i nto a th ing

a granite flank laid bare , a l i fted h ead


alight with dew

If it could si mply look you in th e face


with naked eyeba lls, not l etti ng you turn

ti ll you , a nd I who long to make th is th i ng ,


were fi nally clari fied together i n its stare

8.
No. Let me have this dust,
these pale clouds dourly li ngeri ng, these words

movi ng with feroci ous accu racy


like the bli nd chi ld's fi ngers

or the newborn infa nt's mouth


vi olent with h u nger

No one ca n give me, I have long ago


taken th is meth od

wh eth er of bra n pour i n g from the loose-woven sack

• I<) •
or of the bunsen-flame turned low a nd blue

If from ti me to time I envy


the pure annunciati ons to the eye

the visio beatifica


if from ti me to tim e I long to turn

like the Eleusinian hierophant


holding up a simple ear of gra i n

for return t o the concrete a n d everlasti ng world


what in fact I keep choosing

are these words , these whispers , conversations


from whi ch time after ti me the truth breaks moist and green .

1 97 5

. 20 .
THE LION ESS

Th e scent of h er beauty draws me to h er place.


The desert stretch es , edge from edge.
Rock . Silver grasses . Drinki ng-hole .
The sta rry sky.
The li oness pa uses
in her back-a nd-forth paci ng of three yards square
and looks at me. H er eyes
are truthful . Th ey mi rror ri vers ,
seacoasts , volcanoes , the wa rmth
of moon-bathed promontori es .
Under her haunch es' golden h ide
fl ows a n innate , half-abnegated power.
H er wa lk
is bounded . Th ree square yards
encompass where she goes .

In country like this, I say , the problem is always


one of straying too far, not of staying
within bounds. There are caves,
high rocks, you don't explore. Yet you know
they exist. Her proud, vul n erable head
sniffs toward them. It is her cou ntry , she
knows they exist.

I come towa rds her i n the sta rli ght .


I look i nto h e r eyes
as one who l oves ca n look,
enteri ng the space beh i nd h er eyeba lls ,
leavi ng myself outside.
So , at last , through h er pupi ls ,

• 21 •
I see what she is seeing:
between her a nd the river's flood ,
the volca no veiled i n rai nbow,
a pen that measures three yards square.
Lashed bars .
The cage .
The penance.

1 97 5

• 22 •
II

TWENTY-ONE

LOVE POEMS
Wherever in th is city, screens flicker
with pornography , with science-ficti on va mpires,
victi mized h i reli ngs bend i ng to the lash ,
we also have to walk . . . if simply as we walk
through the ra insoaked garbage , the tabloid cruelties
of our own neighborhoods.
We n eed to grasp our li ves inseparable
from those ra ncid drea ms, that blurt of metal , those disgraces,
and the red begonia peril ously flashi ng
from a tenement sill six stories high ,
or the long-legged young girls playi ng ball
in the jun ior h ighschool playground.
No one has imagi ned us . We want to l ive like trees ,
sycamores blazi ng through the sulfuric a i r ,
dappled with scars , still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted i n the city.

II

I wake up i n your bed. I know I have been dream ing.


Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you've been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our fri end the poet comes into my room
where I've been writing for days ,
drafts , carbons , poems are scattered everywhere ,
a nd I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my li fe. But I h esitate ,
and wake. You've kissed my hair
to wake m e. I dreamed you were a poem ,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . .

and I laugh and fall dreaming aga i n


o f t h e desire t o show you t o everyone I love ,
to move openly together
in the pul l of gravi ty, which is not si mple ,
which carri es the feath ered grass a long way down the upbreath ing air .

• 2.5 •
III

Si nce we're not young, weeks have t o d o ti m e


for years o f m i ss i ng each other.Yet only this odd warp
in ti me tells me we're not you ng.
Did I ever walk the morn ing streets at twenty ,
my li mbs streami ng with a purer joy?
did I lean from any wi ndow over the city
listen i ng for the futu re
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ri ng?
And you , you move toward me with the same tempo.
You r eyes are everlasti ng, the green spa rk
of the blue-eyed grass of earl y summer,
the green-bl ue wild cress washed by the spri ng.
At twenty, yes: we thought we'd l i ve forever.
At forty-five , I wa nt to know even our l i m its .
I tou ch you knowi ng w e weren't born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us wi l l h elp the oth er l i ve ,
a nd somewh ere , each of u s must h elp the other die.

IV

I come home from you through the earl y light of spri ng


flashi ng off ordi nary wa lls, the Pez Dorado,
the Discount Wa res , the shoe-store . ...I'm lugging my sack
of groceri es , I dash for th e elevator
wh ere a ma n, ta ut, elderl y, carefully composed
lets the door al most close on me. -For god's sake hold it!
I croak at him.-Hysterical,- he breathes my wa y.
I l et myself i nto the kitchen , unload my bundles ,
make coffee , open the wi ndow, put on N i na Si mone
si nging Here comes the sun.. . . I open the ma i l ,
drinking delicious coffee , delicious m usi c ,
my body sti l l both light a n d heavy with you.Th e ma i l
lets fa ll a Xerox o f someth i ng written b y a m a n
aged 2 7 , a hostage, tortured in prison:

2.6.
My genitals have been the obiect of such a sadistic display
they keep me constantly awake with the pain ...
Do whatever you can to survive.
You know, I think that men love wars ...
And my i ncurable a nger, my unmendable wou nds
break open further with tea rs , I am crying helplessly ,
a nd they sti ll control the world , a nd you are not i n my a rms.

Th is apa rtment ful l of books could crack open


to the th i ck jaws , the bulging eyes
of monsters , easily: Once open the books , you have to fa ce
the underside of everyth i ng you've l oved-
the rack a nd pi ncers held i n read i ness , the gag
even th e best voices have had to mu mbl e th rough ,
the silence buryi ng u nwa nted children-
women , devia nts , witnesses-i n desert sand .
Kenneth tells me he's been arra nging his books
so he ca n look at Blake and Kafka wh ile he types;
yes; and we sti l l have to reckon with Swift
loath i ng the woma n's flesh while praising her mi nd ,
Goethe's dread of the Mothers , Cla ude! vi lifying Gide,
a nd the ghosts-their hands clasped for centuri es-
of artists dying in ch ildbirth , wise-women cha rred at the stake,
centuri es of books u nwritten piled behi nd these shelves;
a nd we sti ll have to stare into th e absence
of men who would not, women who could n ot, speak
to ou r life-this sti l l u n excavated h ole
ca lled civi lization , this act of tra nslati o n , th is half-worl d .

VI

Your small hands, precisely equal t o m y own­


only the thumb is larger, longer- i n these hands

. 27 .
I could trust the world, or i n many hands like these,
handl ing power-tools or steeri ng-wheel
or touch ing a huma n face . . . . Such hands could turn
th e unborn child rightways in the bi rth canal
or pi lot the exp loratory rescue-ship
through icebergs , or pi ece together
the fi n e , n eedle-like sherds of a great krater-cup
beari ng on its sides
figures of ecstati c women stridi ng
to the sibyl 's den or the Eleus i nian ca\'e--
such ha nds m ight carry out an unavoidable violence
with such restra i nt, with such a grasp
of the ra nge and limits of violence
that violence ever after would be obsol ete .

VII

What ki nd of beast would turn its life i nto words?


What atonement is this all about?
-a nd yet, writing words like th es e , I'm also livi ng.
Is all this close to the wolveri nes' howled s ignals ,
that modulated cantata of the wild?
or, wh en away from you I try to create you i n words ,
am I si mply using you, like a ri ver or a war?
And how have I used rivers , h ow have I used wars
to escape wri ti ng of the wors t th i ng of all-
not the cri mes of others , not even our own death ,
but the fa ilure to want our freedom passi onately enough
so that blighted elms, s i ck rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecrati on of ourselves?

VII I

I ca n see myself years back a t Sunion,


hurti ng with an infected foot, Ph i loctetes
in woma n's form , l i mping the long path ,

. 28 .
lying on a headland over the dark sea ,
looki ng down the red rocks to where a soundless curl
of wh ite told me a wave had s truck,
i magi n i ng the pull of that water from that h eight,
knowing deliberate suicide wasn't my meti er,
yet all the time nurs i ng , measuri ng that wou nd .
Well , that's finished . Th e woma n who ch eri shed
her suffering is dead . I am h er descenda nt.
I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me,
but I wa nt to go on from here with you
fighti ng the temptation to make a career of pai n.

IX

You r silence today is a pond where drowned thi ngs live


I want to see ra ised dripping and brought i nto the sun.
It's not my own face I see there , but other fa ces,
even you r face at a nother age.
Whatever's lost there is needed by both of u s­
a watch of old gold , a water-blurred fever chart ,
a key . . ..Even the silt a nd pebbles of the bottom
deserve their gli nt of recognition . I fear this sile nce,
thi s inarticulate life . I'm wa iting
for a wi nd that will gently ope n this sheeted water
for once, a nd show me what I ca n do
for you , who have often made the u n nameable
nameable for others , even for me.

Your dog , tranquil and i n nocent, dozes through


our cri es , our murmured dawn conspi racies
our telephone calls.Sh e knows-what ca n she know?
If i n my h u man arrogance I cla i m to read
her eyes , I fi nd there only my own a nimal thoughts:
that creatures must fi nd each other for bod i ly comfort ,

. 29 .
that voices of the psych e drive through th e flesh
further tha n the dense brain could have foretold ,
that the pla netary nights are growing cold for those
on the same jou rney who want to touch
one creature-traveler clear to the end;
that without tenderness, we are in hell .

XI

Every peak is a cra ter. Th is is the law of volcanoes ,


making them eternally a nd visibly female.
No height without depth , without a burning core,
though our straw soles shred on the hardened lava.
I want to travel with you to every sacred mounta i n
smoking wi thi n l ike th e sibyl stooped over h e r tri pod ,
I want to reach for your hand as we scale the path ,
to feel your arteri es gl owi ng i n my clasp,
never fa iling to note the sma l l , jewel-like flower
unfamiliar to u s , nameless till we rena me her,
that cl i ngs to the slowly alteri ng rock-
that deta i l outs ide ourselves that bri ngs us to ourselves ,
was here before us, knew we would come, a nd sees beyond us.

XII

Sleepi ng, turning i n tu rn l i ke planets


rotati ng in their midn ight meadow:
a touch is enough to let us know
we're not al one in the univers e , even in sleep:
the dream-ghosts of two worlds
walking their ghost-towns, al most address each other.
I 've wakened to your muttered words
spoken li ght- or dark-years away
as if my own voice had spoke n .
B u t w e have different voices , even in sleep ,
and our bodies , so alike, are yet so different

30 .
and the past echoing through our bloodstrea ms
is freighted with di fferent la nguage , different meani ngs­
though in any chronicle of the world we share
it could be written with new meaning
we were two lovers of one gender ,
we were two women of one gen erati on.

XI I I

Th e rules break l i k e a thermometer ,


quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we're out i n a cou ntry that has no la nguage
no laws, we're chas ing the raven a nd the wren
through gorges unexplored si nce dawn
whatever we do together is pure i nventi on
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years .. . we're driving through the desert
wonderi ng if the water will hold out
the halluci nati ons turn to s i mple vi llages
the music on the radio comes clear-
neither Rosenkavalier nor Gotterdammerung
but a woman's voice singing old songs
with new words , with a quiet bass, a flute
plu cked a nd fi ngered by women outside the law.

XIV

I t was your vi sion of the pilot


confirmed my vision of you: you sai d ,He keeps
on steering headlong into the waves, on purpose
while we crou ched in the open hatchway
vomiti ng into plasti c bags
for three hours between St. Pierre a nd Miquelon.
I never felt closer to you.
In the close cabin where the honeymoon couples
huddled i n each other's laps and arms

. 31 .
I put my hand on your thigh
to comfort both of us , your hand ca me over mine,
we stayed that way, sufferi ng together
i n our bodi es , as if all sufferi ng
were physica l , we touched so in the presence
of strangers who knew noth i ng and cared less
vomiti ng their private pa i n
a s if a l l sufferi ng were physical.

( THE FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED)

Whatever happens with us , your body


will haunt mine-tender, deli cate
your l ovemaki ng, l ike the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun . Your traveled , generous thighs
between which my whole fa ce has come and come-
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there­
the l i ve , i nsati ate da nce of your nipples in my mouth-
your touch on me, firm, protective , search ing
me out, your strong tongue a nd slender fi ngers
reach i ng where I h ad been wai ting years for you
in my rose-wet cave-whatever happens , this is.

XV

If I lay on that beach with you


whi te , empty , pure green water wa rmed by the Gulf Strea m
a nd lying on that beach we could not stay
because the wind drove fine sand agai nst us
as if it were against us
if we tri ed to wi thsta nd it and we fa i l ed­
if we drove to another place
to sleep in each other's arms
and the beds were nar row like prisoners' cots
and we were tired a nd di d n ot sleep together

• 3:Z •
and this was what we found , so this is what we did­
was the fa i l u re ours?
If I cl i ng to circumsta nces I could feel
not responsible. Only she who says
she did not choose, is the loser in the end.

XVI

Across a city from you , I'm with you ,


just as an August night
moony, i nl et-warm , seabathed , I watched you sleep,
the scrubbed , sheenl ess wood of the dressi ng-table
cluttered with ou r brus hes , books , vi als in the moonlight­
or a salt-mist orchard, lying at your s ide
watch i ng red sunset through the screendoor of the cabi n ,
G mi nor Mozart o n the tape-recorder,
fa l l i ng asleep to the music of the sea.
Th is isla nd of Ma nhatta n is wide enough
for both of us , a nd narrow:
I can h ear your breath tonight, I know how your face
lies upturned , the hal flight traci ng
your generous, deli cate mouth
where gri ef a nd laughter sleep together.

XVII

No one's fated or doomed to l ove a nyone.


The accidents happen , we're not h eroi nes ,
they happen in our lives l ike ca r crashes,
books that cha nge u s , n eighborhoods
we move i nto a nd come to l ove.
Trista n und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love a nd death . No poison cup,
no pena nce . Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have ca ught some ghost of us: tha t tape- recorder

. 33 "
not merely pla yed but should have listened to u s ,
a n d could i nstruct those after us:
th is we were , this is how we tri ed to love ,
and these are the forces they had ra nged agai nst us ,
and these are the forces we had ra nged within us ,
with i n us a nd agai nst us , aga i nst us and wi th i n us .

XVI I I

Ra i n o n the West Side High way,


red light at Riverside:
the more I live the more I think
two people together is a miracle.
You're telli ng the story of your l i fe
for once, a tremor breaks the surface of your words.
The story of our li ves becomes our li ves .
Now you're in fugue across what some I ' m s ur e
Vi ctori a n poet ca lled t h e salt estranging sea.
Th ose are the words that come to m i nd .
I feel estrangement, yes As I 've felt dawn
.•

push i ng toward daybreak . Somethi ng: a cleft of light-?


Close between grief and anger, a space opens
wh ere I am Ad rienne alone. And growi ng colder .

XIX

Ca n it be growi ng colder when I begi n


to touch myself aga i n , adhesi ons pul l away?
Wh en slowly the naked face tu rns from staring backward
a nd looks i nto the present,
the eye of wi nter, city , anger , poverty, a nd death
and the lips pa rt a nd say: I mean to go on living?
Am I speaking coldly when I tel l you in a drea m
or in this poem , There are no miracles?
(I told you from the fi rst I wa nted da i l y life ,
th is isla nd of Ma nhatta n was island enough for m e . )

. 34 .
If I could let you know-
two women together is a work
nothi ng in civi lization has made si mple,
two people together is a work
h eroic in its ordinariness,
the sl ow-pi cked, halti ng traverse of a pitch
wh ere the fi ercest attenti on becomes routine
-look at the fa ces of those who have chosen it .

XX

That conversati on we were always on the edge


of havi ng, runs on in my h ead,
at n ight the Hudson trembles in New Jersey light
polluted water yet reflecti ng even
someti mes the moon
and I discern a woma n
I loved, drowni ng in secrets, fear wound round her throat
and choki ng her like hair. And this is she
with whom I tri ed to speak, whose h urt, expressive h ead
turning aside from pa i n, is dragged down deeper
where it cannot hear me,
and soon I shall know I was ta lking to my own soul .

XXI

The dark lintels, the blu e and foreign stones


of the great round ri ppled by stone impl ements
the midsummer night light ris ing from beneath
the horizon-when I said "a cleft of light"
I meant this . And this is not Stonehenge
simply nor any place but the m i nd
casting back to where her sol i tude,
shared, could be chosen without lonel i ness,
not easily nor without pains to stake out

. 3:; •
the circle , the heavy shadows , the great light.
I choose to be a fi gure in that light,
half-blotted by darkness , somethi ng moving
across that space, the color of stone
greeting the moo n , yet more than stone:
a woma n.I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.
III

NOT

SOMEWHERE

ELSE,

BUT HERE
NOT SOMEWH ERE ELSE , B UT HE RE

Courage H er fa ce i n the leaves th e polygo ns


of the paving Her out of touch
Courage to breathe Th e death of October
Spilt wi ne The unbu i lt h ouse The unmade life
Graffiti without memory grown conventi onal
scrawli ng the l east wall god loves you voice of the ghetto
Death of the city H er face
sleeping Her qui ck stride Her
running Search for a private space Th e city
caving in from within The lessons badly
learned Or not at all Th e unbui lt world
Th is one l ove fl owing Touch i ng other
lives Spilt love The least wal l cavi ng

To have enough courage The life that must be lived


in terri ble October
Sudden i m mersion in yellows streaked blood The fast rai n
Faces Inscriptions Trying to teach
unlearnable lessons October Th is one l ove
Repetitions from other li ves The deaths
that must be l i ved Denials Blank walls
Our quick stride side by side H er fugue

Bad air in the tun nels voice of the ghetto god loves you
My face pale in th e window a nger is pa le
the blood shri nks to the h eart
the h ead severed it does not pay to feel

Her fa ce Th e fa st rai n tearing Courage


to feel th is To tell of th is to be alive

. 39 .
Tryi ng to learn unteachable lessons

The fugue Blood in my eyes The careful sutures


ripped open The ha nds that touch me Shall it be said
I am not alone
Spilt l ove seeking i ts level flood i ng other
lives that must be lived n ot somewhere else
but here seei ng through blood nothi ng is l ost

1 974

. 40 .
U PPER BROADWAY

Th e leafbud straggles forth


toward the frigid light of the airshaft th is is fa ith
this pale extension of a day
when l ooking up you know someth i ng is changi ng
wi nter has turned though the wind is colder
Three streets away a roof collapses onto people
who th ought they still had time Ti me out of m i nd

I have wri tten so many words


wa nting to live i nside you
to be of us e to you

Now I must write for myself for this bli nd


woma n scratch i ng the pavement with her wand of thought
this slippered crone inch i ng on i cy streets
reachi ng into wi re trashbaskets pul l i ng out
what was th rown away a nd i n fi nitely preci ous

I look at my hands and see they are sti ll unfi nished


I l ook at the vine a nd see the leafbud
i nching towards life

I l ook at my fa ce i n the glass and see


a halfborn woman

0 41 0
PAULA BECKE R TO CLARA WESTHOFF
Paula Becker 1876-1907
Clara Westhoff 1878--1954

became .friends at Worpswede, an artists' colony near


Bremen, Germany, summer 1899. In January 1900, spent
a half-year together in Paris, where Paula painted and Clara
studied sculpture with Rodin. In August they returned to
Worpswede, and spent the next winter together in Berlin.
In 1901, Clara married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; soon
after, Paula married the painter Otto Modersohn. She died
in a hemorrhage after childbirth, murmuring, What a pity!

Th e autumn feels slowed down,


summer still h olds on here , even the light
seems to last l onger than it should
or maybe I'm using it to the th in edge.
Th e moon rolls in the air. I didn't want this ch i l d.
You're the onl y one I've tol d .
I want a c h i l d maybe , someday, but not now .
Otto has a ca l m , compla cent way
of fol l owing me with h i s eyes , as if to say
Soon you'l l h ave your hands ful l!
And yes , I wi ll; th is ch ild wi ll be mine
not his, the fa ilures , if I fa i l
w i l l be all mine. We're not good , Clara ,
at learning to prevent these things ,
and once we have a child , it is ours.
But lately, I feel beyond Otto or anyone.
I know now the kind of work I have to do.
It takes such energy! I h ave the feeling I'm
moving somewhere , patientl y , i mpati ently,
in my loneliness. I'm looking everywhere in nature
for new forms, old forms in new places ,
the planes of an anti que mouth , let's say, a m ong the leaves.
I know and do not know
what I am searching for.
Remember th ose months in the studio together,

. 42 .
you up to your strong forearms in wet clay,
I trying to make someth i ng of the stra nge i mpressions
assa ili ng me-the Japanese
flowers and bi rds on silk, the dru nks
shelteri ng in the Louvre , that river-light,
those fa ces . . . . Did we know exactly
why we were there? Pari s un nerved you ,
you fou nd it too much , yet you went on
with your work . . . a nd later we met there aga i n ,
both ma rri ed then , a nd I thought you a n d Rilke
both seemed un n erved . I felt a ki nd of joylessness
between you . Of course he a nd I
have had our difficulti es . Maybe I was jealous
of h i m , to begi n with , tak ing you from me,
maybe I married Otto to fill up
my loneli ness for you .
Ra iner, of cou rse, knows more than Otto knows ,
he beli eves in wom en. B ut he feeds on us ,
like all of them . H i s whol e l i fe , h is art
is protected by women. Which of us could say that?
Wh ich of us, Clara , hasn't had to take that leap
out beyond our being women
to save ou r work? or is it to save ourselves?
Marriage is lonel ier tha n soli tude .
Do you know: I was dreaming I h ad di ed
giving birth to the ch ild .
I couldn't pa i nt or speak or even move .
My chi ld-I thi nk-su rvi ved m e . But what was funny
in the dream was , Rai ner had wri tten my requi em­
a long , bea utiful poem, and calli ng me his fri end .
I was your fri end
but in the drea m you didn't say a word .
In the drea m his poem was like a letter
to someone who has no ri ght
to be there but must be treated gently, like a guest

. 43 .
who comes on the wrong day. Cla ra, why don't I dream of you?
That photo of the two of us-I have it sti l l ,
y o u a nd I l ooking hard i nto each other
and my pa inting be hind us. H ow we used to work
side by side! And h ow I've worked since then
tryi ng to create accord i ng to our pla n
that we'd bri ng, against all odds, our full power
to every subject. Hold back nothing
beca use we were women. Clara, our strength sti ll lies
in the thi ngs we used to talk about:
how life and death take one a nother's hands,
the struggle for truth, our old pl edge agai nst gu i l t .
A n d n o w I feel da wn and t h e co mi ng day .
I love waki ng i n my stud i o , seei ng my pi ctures
come alive in the li ght. Someti m es I feel
it is myself that kicks i nside me ,
myself I m ust give suck to, love . . .
I wish we could have done th is for each other
all our lives , but we can't . . .
Th ey say a pregnant woman
drea ms of her O\\"n death . B ut l i fe a nd death
take one another's hands . Clara , I feel so ful l
o f \vork, the l i fe I s e e a head , a n d love
for you , wh o of all people
however badly I say this
wi ll h ear all I say and cannot say .

. 44 .
NIGHTS A N D DAYS

The stars will come out over and over


the hyaci nths rise like flames
from the wi ndswept turf down the middle of upper Broadway
where th e desolate take the sun
the days wi ll run together and stream i nto years
as the rivers freeze and burn
and I ask myself and you , which of our visions will cla i m us
wh i ch will we cla i m
h o w w i l l w e g o o n livi ng
how wi ll we touch , what wi ll we know
what will we say to each other.

Pictures form and dissolve in my h ead:


we are walking in a city
you fled , came back to and come ba ck to sti ll
which I saw once through winter frost
years back, before I knew you ,
before I knew myself.
We are wa lking streets you have by heart from childhood
streets you have graven and erased in dreams:
scrol led portals, trees , ni neteenth-century statues.
We are holding hands so I can see
everyth i ng as you see it
I follow you i nto your dreams
your past, the places
none of us can explain to a nyone .

W e are standing in the wind


on an empty beach , the onsla ught of the surf
tells me Poi nt Reyes , or maybe some northern
Pacific shorel i n e neith er of us has seen.
In its fi ne spectral mist our hair
is grey as the sea
someone who saw us fa r-off would say we were two old women
Noms , perhaps , or s isters of the spray
but our breasts are begi nning to sing together
your eyes are on my mouth

I wake early in the morning


i n a bed we have shared for years
l i e watch i ng your i nnocent, sacred sleep
as if for th e first ti me.
We have been together so many nights and days
this day is not unusual.
I walk to a n eastern window, pull up the bli nds:
the city a round us is sti l l
on a clea r October morn i ng
wrapped i n h er indestructible li ght.

Th e stars will come out over and over


the hyaci nths rise l i ke fla mes
from the windswept turf down the middle of upper Broadway
where the desolate take the sun
the days wi l l run together and strea m i nto years
as the rivers freeze and burn
a nd I ask myself and you, which of our visi ons will cla im us
which will we cla i m
how w i l l w e g o on livi ng
how will we touch , what will we know
what will we say to each other .
SIBLI NG MYSTERI E S

(FOR C . R.)

1.
Remi nd me how we walked
tryi ng the planetary rock
for foothold

testing the rims of canyons


fields of sheer
ice in the midnight sun

smelli ng the rai ns before they came


feeli ng the fullness of the moon
before moonrise

unbala nced by the l i fe


movi ng in us, then l ightened
yet weighted still

by children on our backs


at our h ips , as we made fi re
scooped clay li fted water

Remi nd me how the stream


wetted the clay between our palms
and how the flame

licked i t to mineral colors


how we traced our s igns by torchlight
i n the deep chambers of the caves

a nd how we drew the qui lls

. 47 .
of porcupi nes between our teeth
to a keen thi nness

and brushed the twisted raffia i nto velvet


and bled our lunar knowl edge th irteen ti mes
upon the furrows

I know by h eart, a nd sti l l


I n eed t o have you tell m e ,
h o l d me, remi nd m e

2.
Remind me h ow we l oved our mother's body
our mouths drawi ng the first
th i n sweetness from her n ipples

our faces dream i ng h our on hour


in the salt smel l of h er lap Rem i nd me
how h er touch melted childgrief

how she floated great a nd tender in our dark


or stood gua rd over us
agai nst our wi lli ng

and how we thought she l oved


the stra nge male body first
that took , that took, whose taki ng seemed a law

and h ow she sent us weepi ng


i nto that law
h ow we remet her in our childbi rth vi si ons

erect, enthroned , above


a spiral stair
and crawled and panted toward her
I know, I remember, but
hold me, rem i nd me
of how her woma n's flesh was made taboo to us

30
And how beneath the vei l
black ga uze or white, t h e dragging
ba ngles, the amulets, we dreamed And how beneath

the strange mal e bodies


we sank in terror or i n res ignati on
and h ow we taught them tenderness-

the holdi ng-back, the play,


the floating of a fi nger
the secrets of the nipple

And how we ate and drank


their leavi ngs, h ow we served them
in silence, how we told

among ours elves our secrets, wept a nd laughed


passed ba rk and root and berry
from hand to hand, whi speri ng each one's power

washi ng the bodi es of the dead


making celebrations of doing laundry
piecing our lore in qui lted galaxies

how we dwelt i n two worlds


the daughters and the mothers
i n the kingdom of the sons

4o
Tel l m e agai n beca use I need to h ear

0 49 0
how we bore our mother-secrets
stra ight to the end

tied in u nlawful rags


between our breasts
m uttered in blood

in looks excha nged at the feast


where the fathers sucked the bones
and struck their bargains

i n the open square when noon


battered our shaven heads
and the fla mes curled tra nspa rent in the sun

i n boats of skin on the ice- floe


-the pregnant set to drift,
too many mouths for feedi ng-

how sister gazed at sister


reaching through m i rrored pupils
back to the mother

;.
C . had a son on June 18th . I feel acutely that we are strangers, my sis­
. .

ter and I; we don't get through to each other, or say what we really feel.
This depressoo me violently on that occasion, when I wantoo to have only
generous and simple feelings towards her, of pleasure in her joy, affection
for all that was hers. But we are not really friends, and act the part of sis­
ters. I don't know what really gives her pain or joy, nor does she know how
I am happy or how I suffer.

Th ere were years you a nd I


hardly spoke to each other

• �0 .
then one whol e night
our father dyi ng upstairs

we burned our childhood , reams of paper,


talki ng till the bi rds sang

Your face across a table now: dark


with illumi nation

Th is face I have watched changing


for forty yea rs

has watched me changing


this m i nd has wrenched my thought

I feel the separateness


of cells in us , spl i t-second choice

of one ovum for one sperm?


We have seized different weapons

our hair has fa llen long


or short at different times

words flash from you I never thought of


we are tra nslations into di fferent dialects

of a text sti ll bei ng written


in the origi nal

yet our eyes drink from each other


our lives were driven down the same dark ca nal

. 51 .
6.
We have returned so far
that house of ch ildhood seems absurd

its secrets a fa llen hair, a gra i n of dust


on the photographic plate

we are eternally exposi ng to the universe


I call you from another pla n et

to tell a drea m
Light-years away , you weep with me

Th e daughters never were


true brides of the father

the daughters were to begi n with


brides of the mother

the n brides of each other


under a different law

Let m e hold a nd tell you

• �2 •
A WOMA N DEAD IN H ER FORTI E S

I.

Your breasts/ sl i ced-off The sca rs


di mmed as they would h ave to be
yea rs la ter

All the women I grew up with are sitting


half- naked on rocks in sun
we look at each other a nd
are not asha med

and you too have taken off your blouse


but th is was not what you wanted:

to show your scarred , deleted torso

I ba rely gla nce at you


as if my look could sca ld you
though I ' m th e one who loved you

I wa nt to touch my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such thi ngs

You hadn't thought everyone


would look so perfect
unmuti lated

you pu l l on
your blouse agai n: stern statement:

There are things I will not share


with everyone

. 5� .
2. .

You send m e back to share


my own scars first of all
with myself

What did I h ide from her


what have I denied her
what l osses suffered

how in thi s ignorant body


did she h ide

wai ti ng for her release


till u ncontrollable li ght began to pour

from every wound and suture


and all the sacred openi ngs


Warti me. We sit on warm
weathered , softeni ng grey boards

the ladder glimmers where you told me


the leeches swim

I s mell the flame


of kerosene the pi ne

boards where we sleep side by s ide


in narrow cots

the n ight-meadow exhaling


its da rkness calli ng

. 54 .
child i nto woman
child i nto woman
woma n


Most of our love from the age of n i ne
took the form of jokes a nd mute

loyalty: you fought a girl


who said she'd knock me down

we did each other's homework


wrote letters kept in touch , untouch i ng

l i ed about our lives: I weari ng


the face of the proper marriage

you the face of the i ndependent woma n


We cleaved to each other across that space

fi ngeri ng webs
of love and estra ngement till the day

the gynecologist touched your breast


and found a palpable hardness


You played h eroic, necessary
games with death

si nce in your neo-protestant tribe the void


was supposed n ot to ex ist

except as a fas h io nable concept

• c; :; .
you had no traffic with

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 l i fe , you dean of women, or

you r u nfa i r , unfash ionable, unforgivable


woma n 's death?

6.
You are every woma n I eve r loved
and disavowed

a bloody inca ndescent chord strung out


across years , tracts of space

How ca n I reconcile th is passion


with our modesty

your calvi nist heritage


my girl hood frozen into forms

how can I go on this m ission


without you

you, who might have told me


everything you feel is true?

. ;6 .

Time after time in drea ms you ris e
reproachful

once from a wheelchair pushed by your fa ther


across a lethal expressway

Of all my dead it's you


who come to me u n fi n ished

You left me amber beads


strung with turquoise from an Egyptian grave

I wear them wondering


How am I true to you?

I'm half-afraid to write poetry


for you who never read it much

a nd I'm left laboring


with the secrets and the silence

In plain la nguage: I n ever told you how I l oved you


we never talked at your deathbed of your death

8.
One autumn evening in a train
catching the diamond-flash of sunset

in puddles along th e H udson


I thought: I understand

life and death now , the choices


I didn't know your choice

or how by then you had no choice


how the body tells the truth in its rush of cells

Most of our l ove took the form


of mute loyalty

we never spoke at your deathbed of your death

but from here on


I want more crazy mourning, more howl , more keeni ng

We stayed mute a nd disloyal


because we were afraid

I would have touched my fi ngers


to where your breasts had been
but we never did such thi ngs

1 97 4- 1 977

. ;8 .
MOfHER-RIGHT

(FOR M. H.)

Woma n a nd child run m ng


i n a field A ma n pla nted
on the horizon

Two hands one long, slim one


small , sta rl i ke clasped
in the razor wi nd

Her hair cut short for fas ter travel


the child's curls grazi ng his shoulders
the hawk-wi nged cl oud over their h eads

The man is walking boundaries


measur i ng H e bel i eves in what is his
the grass the waters undern eath the air

the air through which child a nd mother


are runn i ng the boy si ngi ng
the woma n eyes sharpened i n the l ight
h eart stumbling making for the open

1 977
NATURAL RESOU RCE S

I .

Th e core of the strong hill: not understood:


the mul ch-heat of the underwood

where unforeseen the forest fi re unfu rls;


the heat, the privacy of the mines;

the rainbow laboring to extend h erself


wh ere neither men nor cattle u ndersta nd,

arching her lusters over rut a nd stubble


pur e l y to reach where she must go;

the emerald lying against th e silver vei n


waiting for light t o reach it, breathing i n pain;

the miner laboring beneath


the ray of the h eadlamp: a weight like death .

2o
The miner is no metaphor. She goes
into the cage like th e rest, is fl u ng

downwa rd by gravity like th em, must cha nge


her body like the rest to fit a crevice

to work a lode
on h er the pick ha ngs heavy, the bad air

lies thick , the mountai n presses in on her


with boulder, timber, fog

0 6o 0
slowly the mountai n's dust descends
into the fibers of her lu ngs .


The cage drops into the dark,
the routine of life goes on:

a woman turns a doorknob, but so slowly


so qui etly, that no one wakes

and it is she alone who gazes


into the dark of bedrooms , ascerta i ns

how they sleep , who needs her touch


what window blows the ice of February

i nto the room and who m ust be protected:


It is only she who sees; who was trai ned to see.


Could you imagine a world of women only ,
the intervi ewer asked . Ca n you imagine

a world where women are absent. (He beli eved


h e . was joking . ) Yet I have to imagine

at one and the same moment , both . Because


I live in both . Can you imagine,

the intervi ewer asked ,


a world of men?
(He thought he was joki ng . ) If so, then,

a world where men are absent?


Absently , weari ly, I a nswered: Yes .

. 61 .

The phantom of the man-who-would-understand ,
the lost brother, the twin-

for him did we leave our mothers ,


deny our sisters , over and over?

did we i nvent h i m , conjure him


over the charri ng log,

nights , late, i n the snowbound cabi n


did we dream or scry his face

in the liquid embers ,


the man-who-would-dare-to-know-us?

6.
It was never the rapist
it was the brother , lost ,

the comrade/twin whose palm


would bear a lifeline like our own:

decisive, arrowy ,
forked-lightning of i nsatiate des ire

It was never the crude pestle , the blind


ra mrod we were after:

merely a fellow-creature
with natural resources equal to our own


Meanwhile , another kind of bei ng
was constructing itself, bli ndly

. 62 .
-a mutant, some have said:
the blood-compelled exemplar

of a "botched civi lization"


as one of them called it

children picking up guns


for that is what it means to be a ma n

We have lived with violence for seven years


It was not worth one single life-

but the patri ot's fist is at her throat,


her voice is in mortal da nger

and that ki nd of bei ng has lai n in our beds


declari ng itself our desire

requi ri ng women's blood for life


a woman's breast to lay its nightmare on

8.
And that ki nd of being has other forms:
a passivity we mistake

-i n the desperation of our search­


for gentleness

But gentleness is active


gentleness swabs the crusted stump

invents more merciful i nstruments


to touch the wound beyond the wound

does not fa i nt with di sgust


wi ll not be driven off

keeps beari ng witness ca lmly


agai nst the predator , the parasite


I am ti red of fa i nthea rtedness ,
their havi ng to be exceptional

to do what an ord i nary woman


does in the course of thi ngs

I am ti red of women stoopi ng to half our h eight


to bri ng the essential vein to l i ght

ti red of the waste of what we bear


with such cost , such elation, i nto sight

(-for what becomes of what the m i ner probes


and carves from the mountai n's body in her pai n?)

1 0.
This is what I a m : watch i ng the spider
rebu ild-"pati ently", they say ,

but I recognize in her


impatience-- m y own-

the pa ss ion to make and make aga i n


wh ere s u c h unmaking reigns

the refusal to be a vi cti m


we have lived with violence so long

. 04 .
Am I to go on saying
for myself, for her

This is my body,
take and destroy it?

11.
The enormity of the si mplest th i ngs:
in this cold ba rn tables are spread

wi th ch i na saucers , shoehorns
of german silver , a gilt-edged book

that opens into a picture-frame­


a biscui t-ti n of the thi rties.

Outside, the north l i es vast


with unshed s now, everyth i ng is

at once remote a nd fa miliar


each house conta i ns what it must

women s1mmer carcasses


of clea n-picked turkeys , store away

the cl eaned cutglass a nd s oak the l i nen cloths


Dark rushes early at the pa nes

12.
Th ese th i ngs by women saved
are all we have of them

or of those dear to them


these ribboned letters , s napshots

. 6; .
fa ithfully glued for years
onto the scrapbook page

these scraps , turned i nto patchwork,


doll-gowns , clean white rags

for stanch i ng blood


the bride's tea-yellow handkerchief

the child's height penci led on the cellar door


In this cold ba rn we dream

a universe of h umble thi ngs­


and without these, no memory

no faithfulness, no purpose for the future


no honor to the past

1 3.
There are words I cannot choose again:
huma nism androgyny

Such words have no shame in them , no diffidence


boefre the raging stoic grandmothers:

their gli nt is too shallow, like a dye


that does not permeate

the fibers of actual life


as we live it, now:

this fraying bla nket with its ancient stains


we pull across the sick child's shoulder

or wrap around the senseless legs


of the hero trai ned to kill

. 66 .
this weavi ng, ragged because incomplete
we turn our ha nds to, i nterrupted

over and over, handed down


unfinished , found in the drawer

of an old dresser in the barn ,


her va nished pride a nd care

still urgi ng us , urgi ng on


our work, to close the gap

i n the Great Nebula ,


to help the earth deliver.

14.
Th e women who first knew themselves
mi ners , are dead . The rai nbow flies

like a flying buttress from the walls


of cloud , the silver-a nd-green vei n

awaits the batteri ng of the pick


the dark lode weeps for light

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:


so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those


who age after age , perversely,

with no extraordi nary power ,


reconstitute the world .

1 977
TOWA RD THE SOLSTI CE

Th e thirtieth of t\o\'ember .
Sno\\' is starting to fa ll .
A peculiar silence is spreading
m·er the fields , the maple grove.
It is the th irti eth of May,
ra in pours on anci ent bushes , runs
down the you ngest blade of grass .
I a m trying to hold i n one steady gla nce
all the parts of my life .
A spring torrent races
on th is old sla nting roof,
the sla nted field below
th ickens with wi nter's first whi teness .
Th istles dried to sticks in last year's wind
sta nd nakedly i n the green ,
sta nd sullenly in the sl owl y wh iten i ng,
field .

My bra i n gl ows
more vi olently , more avidly
the qu i eter , the thicker
th e quilt of crystals settl es ,
the louder , more relentlessly
the torrent beats its elf out
on th e old boards and s hingles .
I t i s the th irtieth of May ,
the th irtieth of November,
a beginning or an end ,
we are movi ng i nto the solstice
and there is so much here
I sti ll do n ot understand .

. 68 .
If I could make sense of how
my life is sti ll tangled
with dead weeds , thistles ,
enormous burdocks , burdens
slowly shifting under
this fi rst fa ll of snow,
beaten by th is earl y, racking rai n
cal l i ng all n ew life to decla re itself strong
or di e ,
if I could know
in what la nguage to address
the spirits that cla i m a place
beneath these low a nd si mple cei l i ngs ,
tenants that neither speak nor sti r
yet dwell i n mute insistence
till I can feel utterl y ghosted in this hous e .

If h istory i s a spider-th read


spu n over and over though brushed away
it seems I might some twil i ght
or dawn in the hus hed cou ntry l i ght
discern its greyness stretching
from mold i ng or doorfra me, out
i nto the empty dooryard
and foll owi ng it climb
the path into the pinewoods ,
tra ci ng from tree to tree
in the fa ili ng l i ght, in the sl owly
lucidifying day
its constant, purposi\'e tra i l ,
till I reach whatever cel lar hole
fi l l i ng with snowflakes or l i ch e n ,
whatever fa llen shack
or u nremembered cl eari ng
I am meant to have found
and there , u nder the first or last
star, trusti ng to i nsti nct
the words would come to m i nd
I have fa iled or forgotten to say
year after yea r, wi nter
after summer, the right rune
to ease the hold of the past
upon the rest of my life
and ease my hold on the past.

If some rite of sepa ration


is sti ll u naccompl ished
between myself and the long-gone
tena nts of this hous e ,
between myself a nd m y childhood ,
and the ch ildh ood of m y ch ildre n ,
it is I w h o have neglected
to perform the needed acts ,
set water i n corners , l i ght and eucalyptus
in front of mi rrors ,
or merely pa use and listen
to my own pulse vi brati ng
lightly as fa lling snow,
relentlessly as the ra i nstorm ,
and hear what it has been sayi ng.
It seems I a m still waiting
for them to make some clear dema nd
some arti culate sou nd or gesture ,
for release to come from anywhere
but from i nside myself.

A decade of cutti ng away


dead fl esh , ca uteri z i ng
old sca rs ripped open over a nd over
and sti ll it is not enough .

. 70 .
A decade of perform i ng
the lovi ng humdrum acts
of attention to this house
tra nsplanting l i lac suckers ,
washi ng panes , scrubbi ng
wood-smoke from spli tti ng paint,
sweepi ng stairs , brushing the thread
of the spider aside,
and so much yet undone,
a woma n's work, the solstice nearing,
and my hand still suspended
as if above a letter
I long a nd dread to close.

1 977

. 71 .
TRA N SCENDENTAL ETU DE

(FOR �IICIIELLE CLIFF)

Th is August evening I 've been dri vi ng


over backroads fri nged wi th queen a nne's lace
my car sta rtli ng you ng deer in meadows-one
gave a hoarse intake of h er breath a nd all
four fa wns spra ng after her
i nto the dark maples .
Three months from today they'll be fa ir ga me
for the hit-and- run hunters , gloryi ng
i n a weekend's destructive power,
triggers fi ngered by drunke n gunmen, sometim es
so inept as to l eave the shattered a n i mal
stu nned in her blood . B ut thi s even i ng deep i n summer
the deer are sti ll alive and free,
nibbl i ng apples from ea rly-laden boughs
so weighted , so englobed
with already yellowing fruit
they seem eternal, H esperidea n
i n the clear-tu ned , cri cket-throbbi ng a i r .

Later I stood i n the dooryard ,


my nerves si ngi ng the i mmense
fragility of all this sweetness ,
this green world already senti mentalized , ph otograph ed ,
advertised to death . Yet, it pers ists
stubbornly beyond the fake Vermont
of antique barnboards gla zed i nto discoth eques ,
arti ficial snow, the sick Vermont of children
concei ved i n apathy , grown to wi nters
of rotgut vi olence,
poverty gnash i ng its teeth like a bli nd cat at thei r lives .
Still , it pers ists . Turn i ng off onto a d i rt road

0 72 .
from the raw cuts bulldozed through a quiet vi llage
for the tou rist run to Canada ,
I've sat on a stone fence above a great, soft , sloping field
of m usi ng heifers , a fa rmstead
sla nti ng its pla nes calmly in the calm light,
a dead elm ra ising bl each ed arms
above a green so dense with life ,
m i n ute, momentary life-slugs , moles , pheasants , gnats ,
spiders , moths , h u m m i ngbi rds , groundhogs , butterfli es­
a l i feti me is too narrow
to u nderstand i t all , begi n n i ng with the h uge
rockshelves that underl i e all that l i fe .

N o one ever told u s we had t o study ou r l i ves ,


make of our li ves a study , a s i f learni ng natu ral history
or music, that we should begin
with th e si mple exercises first
a nd slowl y go on tryi ng
the hard ones , practici ng ti l l strength
a nd accuracy became one with the dari ng
to l eap i nto tra nsce nde nce, take the chance
of breaking down i n the wild arpeggi o
or faulting the fu ll sentence of the fugue.
-And in fact we ca n't l i ve l i ke that: we take on
everyth i ng at once before we've even begun
to read or mark ti m e , we' re forced to begi n
in the midst of the hardest m ovement,
the one al ready soundi ng as we are born .
At most we're all owed a few months
of si mply listen ing to the si mple l i n e
o f a woma n's voice si ngi ng a child
agai nst her heart. Everyth i ng else is too soon ,
too sudde n , the wre nch i ng-apart, that woman's heartbeat
hea rd ever after from a dista nce ,

. 73 .
the loss of that grou nd- note ech oing
whenever we are happy , or i n despa i r .

Everyth ing e l s e seems beyond u s ,


w e aren't ready for it, n oth i ng that was said
is true for us, caught naked i n the argu ment,
the counterpoint, trying to sightread
what our fi ngers ca n't keep up with , learn by h eart
what we can't even rea d . And yet
it is th is we were born to. We aren't vi rtuosi
or child prodigies , there are no prodigies
in this rea l m , only a half-bl i nd , stubborn
cleavi ng to the ti mbre, the tones of what we are
-even when all the texts describe it differently.

And we're not performers , like Liszt, competing


agai nst the world for speed a nd brillia nce
(the 79-year-old pia nist sa id, when I asked h er
What makes a virtuoso? -Competitiveness. )
Th e longer I l i ve the more I m i strust
theatrica lity , the fa lse glamour cast
by performa nce, the more I know its poverty beside
th e truths we are salvaging from
the splitti ng-open of our l i ves .
Th e woman wh o sits watch i ng, l i stening,
eyes movi ng in the da rk ness
is rehea rs i ng i n her body, h ea ri ng-out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words , a few chords , from the stage:
a tale only she can tel l .

But there come ti mes-perhaps this is one of them­


when we have to take ourselves more seri ously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantati ons ,
rhythms we've moved to thoughtlessl y ,

. 74 .
a nd disenthrall ourselves , bestow
ou rselves to silence, or a deeper li sten ing, cleansed
of oratory , formulas, choruses , laments , static
crowdi ng the wires . We cut the wi res ,
fi nd ourselves in free-fall , as if
our tru e home were the undi mensi onal
soli tudes , the ri ft
i n the Grea t Nebula .
No one wh o survi ves to speak
n ew la nguage, has avoided this:
the cutti ng-away of a n old force that held h er
rooted to an old grou nd
the pitch of u tter lonel i n ess
where she herself and all creati on
seem equally dispers ed , weightless , h er bei ng a cry
to wh ich no echo comes or ca n ever com e .

But i n fa ct w e were always l i k e th is ,


rootless , dismembered: knowi ng it makes the difference .
B i rth stripped our bi rthright from us,
tore us from a woma n , from wome n , from ourselves
so early on
a nd the wh ole ch orus throbbing at our ears
l i ke midges , told us noth i ng , noth i ng
of origi ns, noth i ng we needed
to know , noth i ng that could re-member us .

Only: that it is unnatural ,


the homes ickness for a woma n , for ourselves ,
for that acute j oy at the shadow her h ead a nd arms
cast on a wal l , h er h eavy or slender
th ighs on wh ich we lay, fl esh agai nst flesh,
eyes steady on the face of love; smell of h er milk, her sweat,
terror of her disappea rance , all fused i n this h unger
for the element they have ca lled most da ngerous , to be
li fted breathtaken on h er breast, to rock within her
-even if beaten back, stra nded aga i n, to apprehend
i n a sudden brine-clear thought
trembl i ng like the ti ny, orbed, enda ngered
egg-sac of a new world:
This is what she was to me, and this
is how I can love myself-
as only a woman can love me.

Homesick for myself, for her-a s, after the heatwave


breaks , the cl ear tones of the world
manifest: cl oud , bough , wall , insect, the \"ery soul of l i ght:
homesick as the fl uted va ult of desire
articula tes i tself: I am the lover and the loved,
home and wanderer, she who splits
{lrewood and she who knocks, a stranger
in the storm, two women, eye to eye
measur i ng each oth er's spi rit, each oth er's
l i m i tless des i re ,
a wh ol e n e w poetry begi nni ng here .

Vision begi ns t o happen i n such a l i fe


as if a woman quietl y wa lked away
from th e argument and jargon i n a room
a nd sitting down in the kitchen, began turn ing in h er lap
bi ts of ya rn, ca l ico a nd \·elvet scraps ,
layi ng them out absently on the scrubbed boa rds
in the lampl i ght, with small ra inbow-colored shells
sent i n cotton-wool from somewhere fa r away,
and skei ns of m i l kweed from the nearest meadow­
original dom estic silk, the finest find i ngs-
a nd the da rkbl ue peta l of the petu nia,
and the dry da rkbrown lace of seaweed:
not forgotten either , the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curl i ng
beside the fi nch 's yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity ,
the striving for greatness, bri lliance-
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experi enced fi ngers qui etly pushing
dark agai nst bright, s ilk agai nst roughness ,
pulli ng the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery ,
only care for the ma ny-lived , u nending
forms in which she finds herself,
becomi ng now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner , da ngerous
to flesh , now the plentiful , soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbi ng fi nger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
formi ng u nderneath everyth ing that grows .

1 97 7

. 77 .

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