Adrienne Rich and Eleanor Lerman

“Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman,” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, p. 248

I really enjoyed the excerpt “Dedications” from Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World. Even though I’m not sure what content Rich’s “Dedications” conclude, I was struck by Rich’s direct address of her audience and the relationship implied between Rich and her audience.

rich, adrieene

I know you are reading this poem occurs at the beginning of each sentence in the poem 12 times. Rich assumes her audience will read her poem in the different scenarios of life that she imagines her audience members could experience. It’s as if when she was writing the dedications, she imagines a diverse audience that fulfill different roles, ages, genders, jobs, locations, races and/or ethnicities, physical positions/ motions, emotions, etc. The audience members are just familiar enough that one can begin to sketch out their figures and setting but faint enough that each of their faces remains a blur. I sensed conflict between, or at least juxtaposition of, collectivity and individuality within Rich’s construction of her audience.

Lines 33-35 stood out to me for their unique inclusion of Rich’s desire along with her construction of the audience members’ desire: I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language / guessing at some words while others keep you reading / and I want to know which words they are. Rich desires to know which words keep you reading. My guess is why she would want to know which words keep you reading is that she thinks that there is a bond between her as the author and this particular audience member as a reader. There is something shared between the two that even language can’t separate, and she wants to know what words can bridge this gap, can connect, bind.

Rich’s poem reminds me of Eleanor Lerman’s poem “Starfish,” which similarly creates a scenario of a person’s life with enough specificity that one can begin to imagine the scenes described. However, Lerman utilizes the second person pronoun you to encourage participation with the reader, simulating commonality in what life does, as if life can do “this” or “that” both for the person she writes about and for her reader. She also writes about the different stages that most people experience in life, cultivating commonality while also cultivating individuality with specific encounters that may only be experienced by the person in the poem.

“Starfish” | Eleanor Lerman


 This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?


Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.


And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.


Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.


So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.




2 thoughts on “Adrienne Rich and Eleanor Lerman

  1. I love the way you’ve interpreted this poem. I think this poem and your analysis captures the relational aspect of her poetry. Language seems to be what binds reader and poet, and more broadly, person to person. I also love how her poems deal with this philosophy of language without using complex, didactic language. If we look at Rich in contrast to Stein, I think we can be amazed by all the different ways language can be used to talk about language!

    Thanks for a great post as usual 🙂


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