New York Norton 1978

The questioning of patriarchal assumptions, the need for change, courage, and the power of the will, are themes in Adrienne Rich's poetry before The Dream of a Common Language, but in this volume for the first time they are fully focused upon the relationships between women, and the language that could express those relationships in poetry. Rich seeks a space for the voice of women free from the patriarchal tradition that the poetry claims has named things, defined form, and imposed an identity and definition upon women, thus limiting their actions and self-expression. Rich's poems in The Dream of a Common Language explore this space and search for this new language in a number of ways; most of the poems are in the personal voice of the poet speaking out, describing, exercising the courage and freedom that the poems insist is essential. Many of the poems describe experiences only available to women: lesbian love, childbirth, motherhood, sisterhood. Some use a frank, intimate voice to describe physical love between women as a way to subvert the conventions of male love poetry addressed to women, especially the traditions of romance that objectify women as love objects. Sometimes the language is radically minimalized, to strip it as much as possible of patriarchal associations, while another strategy advocates tenderness alongside courage, as a contrast to the conventions of aggressive male heroism. Some poems give voice to heroic or defeated figures from the past, bringing language to women formerly silenced, in the spirit of the work of H.D., whose lines from The Flowering of the Rod serve as the volume's epigram:

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

Rich's volume is divided into three parts, titled "Power," "Twenty-One Love Poems," and "Not Somewhere Else, But Here." In the book's first two poems, courageous women pay with their lives for their determination to take on what has formerly been inscribed as male territory. The isolated Madame Curie dies from "wounds [that] came from the same source as her power." In "Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev" - the leader of a climbing team, all of whom perished in a storm while climbing Lenin Peak - Shatayev's voice comes to speak for all of the women in her team. The courage to strive for their goal, and to face the suffering, comes from an inner strength discovered through the communal drive. The real "danger" is "separateness," "but till now / we had not touched our strength."

Speaking for her group, Shatayev says that realizing such communal strength had always been something "dreamed," and the idea of "dream" here, in the volume's title, and in other poems in the book acknowledges the ideal nature of the search, as well as the dangers of its confronting and challenging both the physical world and the time-bound conventions that have insisted upon shaping our understanding of that world. The next poem, "Origins and History of Consciousness," which provides the volume's title, terms this search "The drive / to connect. The dream of a common language." Its history includes the "photographs of dead heroines" such as those of the first two poems.

What binds the communal effort in these poems is love, either sexual and individual, as in the next poem "Splittings," or in a shared sense of purpose and fearlessness in the freedom of newly asserted identity, as with the mountain climbers. "Until we find each other, we are alone," ends the poem "Hunger," which describes the suffering of mothers for their children in the Third World within a system of inequality that economically and politically keeps women in both rich and poor countries from being free.

At the center of The Dream of a Common Language are the "Twenty-One Love Poems" of the second section. These free-form sonnets had earlier been published in a limited, hand-printed edition of 1,000 copies in 1976. The love for the loved woman brings an understanding to the poet in poem V of the "centuries of books unwritten" piled behind the shelves of books by male authors, some of those authors scorning women and homosexual love. The result is a "civilization" that is a "half-world." The poems are a meditation upon the pain, joy, and necessary courage of lesbian love, the need for "tenderness" (poem X) and avoiding evasion. Following poem XIV is "(THE FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED)" which is the most frank in its physical description of intimacy, as if to take its praise of the physical joy of one woman's body for another beyond this particular relationship to the realm of possibility for all women. What is important, the final poem in this sequence asserts, is to choose how to love, not merely to be passively acted upon.

The final section of the book contains instances of promise thwarted, courage failed, but the need to learn from such experience and continue the journey. "Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff," as its accompanying note glosses, imagines a letter between two woman artists whose careers, and in the case of Becker her life, are subordinated to the careers of their artist husbands (Westhoff was married to Rainer Maria Rilke). The marriages also separate the mutual support that each woman brought to the other. "Sibling Mysteries," as part of the book's articulation of experiences open only to women, explores the connection of daughters to their mothers, a bond, the poem argues, early made "taboo" as women are made to conform to a world of patriarchal values. "Let me hold and tell you" the poet's voice tells her sibling in the final line; the "common language" as often in this book is linked to physical action, to the associated language of performance. Such telling did not happen between the childhood friends described in "A Woman Dead in her Forties," as the regret expressed by the surviving friend recounts.

Refusing to be a victim, escaping the past, having the courage to try to survive, these themes continue in the volume's final poems. As the last poem, "Transcendental Etude," dedicated to Michelle Cliff - with whom Rich began sharing her life in 1976 - puts it:

No one who survives to speak new language, has avoided this: the cutting-away of an old force that held her rooted to an old ground

And no one has avoided what follows - isolation, self doubt and fear. The common language that these poems seek is an attempt to mitigate that isolation, to open up feminist choices for love, action, and community, and for the poetry that describes and records it.

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