The poet Adrienne Rich died at age 82 yesterday, March 28. The New York Times in its obituary describes her as “among the most influential writers of the feminist movement.” This is true. Let’s also acknowledge her as one of the great writers, period, of the 20th century. Her body of work is still fresh and relevant.
The most recent issue of Granta included a new poem, “Endpapers,” which prompted me to re-read the anthology Facts of a Doorframe (new edition, 2002) and essays Arts of the Possible (2002). I first read her work deeply in a graduate class taught by Renée Bergland at Simmons College, which I attended from the age of 35 to 38. This is perhaps late to come to Adrienne Rich, seeing that she had been around as an influential writer since the 1960s, but it was the right time for me. Awakenings, after all, tend to happen once a person has some adulthood under her belt. A favorite poem from Doorframe is “The Trees.” If you know me or are a reader of this blog, this won’t surprise you. What’s surprising about the poem, however, is how unromantic it is for a nature poem: trees in a greenhouse break out as though patients from an asylum.
See below the jump for an excerpt of the poem by Rich and an excerpt of a paper comparing Rich’s “The Trees” to Frost’s “Birches” (another poem loved by me) I wrote in April 2003 for Renée’s excellent women’s poetry course. I have some new thoughts on the poem, too.
from “The Trees,” by Adrienne Rich (1966)
The leaves strain toward the glass
small twigs stiff with exertion
long-cramped boughs shuffling under the roof
like newly discharged patients
to the clinic doors.
I sit inside, doors open to the veranda
writing long letters
in which I scarcely mention the departure
of the forest from the house.
The night is fresh, the whole moon shines
in a sky still open
the smell of leaves and lichens
still reaches like a voice into the rooms.
My head is full of whispers
which tomorrow will be silent.
Listen. The glass is breaking.
The trees are stumbling forward
into the night. Winds rush to meet them.
The moon is broken like a mirror,
its pieces flash now in the crown
of the tallest oak.
from “Trees, Ice, and Breaking Glass: A Look at Wholeness in Frost and Fracture in Rich,” by Jane Kokernak (2003)
The “I,” the voice of the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “The Trees,” is a voice with a body engaged in activities and sensing intrusions that are not organic to the conventions of a nature poem. This is, in fact, an (un)natural poem that narrates the struggle of a population of trees to escape the confines of a greenhouse. In evoking the trees’ “strain,” the poem demonstrates the unsuitability of language itself as a greenhouse or container of nature. The speaker is a witness to the trees’ exodus, but distances herself from participating in the making of something out of the spectacle, while at the same time, paradoxically, reminding the audience of her role in the making. She “sit[s]” and “writ[es]” but not poems, “long letters,” in which she “scarcely mention[s] the departure / of the forest.” Even though the speaker addresses an audience, her own “head is full of whispers”—she’s an audience as well. We, however, the audience to the poem, is compelled in by the command: “Listen.” The speaker reaches across the barrier between poem and audience, a transaction that occurs on a page, and says: Listen, you.
Adrienne Rich articulates her consciousness of the many levels of inner and outer and the blurring of the boundaries between them. The trees, “long-cramped… under the roof” are trying to get out while the speaker remains in the space the trees long to escape. An open door makes the “night” and the “whole moon” and the “sky” available to the speaker; at the same time, through this door “the smell of leaves… / still reaches” back in. The speaker’s “head” is another interior, implicitly entered by “whispers.”
Does Adrienne Rich have Robert Frost’s “Birches” in mind when she writes “The Trees”? I feel, strongly, yes. I am especially intrigued by her image of the trees “like newly discharged patients / half-dazed” and how it echoes Frost’s use of “crazes” to accurately describe the hairline surface cracking of the ice, or “enamel,” that glazes the birches. “Crazes” may also be used figuratively to mean, “to render insane, drive mad, distract” (OED, 2 ed.) and although I do not think, at all, that Frost intends this allusion in his image, Adrienne Rich responds to it—her “patients / half-dazed” are certainly “benumbed mentally” (OED, 2 ed.). In addition, the speaker’s sense of her head “full of whispers,” occurring one verse later, links to these “discharged patients.” They’re patients of a mental hospital. Two of Frost’s daughters suffered from mental illness, and his son committed suicide. I don’t think that Rich is indicting Frost for the sufferings of his children; I sense that her program is to question the integrity of a poet’s voice that cordons off from the poem any personal intrusions on the artistic vision. In some of his earlier pieces, like “Home Burial,” Frost did write about personal experience, but he did so obliquely and assigned the voice of grief to third-person characters.
I sense the sound, too, of Rich’s poem echoing “Birches” graciously. The prevalent ess sound, the occasional K, is deliberate: why else use “scarcely” to qualify the speaker’s mention of the incident of the trees’ “departure”? The ch of Frost’s “avalanching” is evident in Rich’s “discharged” and “reaches” and “departure,” too. “The Trees” poem is aesthetically an homage to Frost’s “Birches,” and a departure and correction as well. The “ice” in “Birches” cracks like “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.” Glass breaks in “The Trees”; this is the breakage of escape, and in the last verse even the “moon is broken like a mirror” and Rich leaves it, declining to sweep it away. This brokenness is necessary, for it allows the oak its majesty.
In 2003 when I first encountered and wrote about this poem, it was so much in the context of Frost’s poem and what I perceived to be Rich’s artistic reaction to it. Her poem seemed to me then to argue against romanticism and sentimentality, although I see now that there are some deliberate vestiges of both in the poem.
My recent re-reading of Rich’s 1971 essay and artistic memoir, “When We Dead Awaken” — which feels remarkably contemporary, you should read it — has given me additional insight. This poem may also be about privilege (the privilege of the white, financially secure artist) and her reckoning with her relationship to, or detachment from, the oppressed.
“When We Dead Awaken” was originally a talk at the 1971 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Rich reminded her audience of their privilege as well as the ongoing struggles of women not in the room:
I am aware of the women who are not with us here because they are washing to dishes and looking after the children. Nearly fifty years after [Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own] spoke, that fact remains largely unchanged. And I am thinking also of women whom she left out of the picture altogether–women who are washing other people’s dishes and caring for other people’s children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children. We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us and our work according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be. An important insight of the radical women’s movement has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman. Every one of us here in this room has had great luck — we are teachers, writers, academicians. [...] Our struggles can have meaning and our privileges — however precarious under patriarchy–can be justified only if they can help to change the lives of women whose gifts–and whose very being–continue to be thwarted and silenced.
Read “The Trees” again, as I did, and this time consider the speaker — the poem’s “I” — to be this special woman Rich speaks of in her essay, and consider the trees “strain[ing] toward glass” to be the thwarted and silenced: an unrecognized class of women, yes, but any unrecognized class or population whose existence may be confined in ways by structural mechanisms while we enjoy our leisure, pleasure, and power.
Image: Trees, Margaret Clapp Greenhouses, Wellesley College, February 2009. Credit: Jane Kokernak