"A thinking woman sleeps with monsters"

Dr Cassandra Atherton pays tribute to Adrienne Rich.

A poet of towering reputation and towering rage - Adrienne Rich
A poet of towering reputation and towering rage - Adrienne Rich

By Dr Cassandra Atherton*

The death of Adrienne Rich, on March 27, was barely mentioned in the Australian media.  I read about her death in the New York Times online and, subsequently, in tributes in every major American newspaper.  A brilliant poet, writer, essayist and one of the best known public intellectuals, Rich is described in the New York Times obituary as:

"a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work – distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity – brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly half a century".

It is hard to understand why Australians aren’t schooled in her poetics and identity politics.  Most Australians have not heard of Rich, nor her poetry.  Indeed, we teach her friend, Sylvia Plath’s poetry in high schools, but ignore Rich’s work in the classroom.  Perhaps, as a result, I have been unwaveringly committed to teaching Rich’s work in my Literary Studies classes at Deakin University.  Her free-verse form, her use of enjambment and the feminist and political content of her work introduces students to the way in which the personal is political.  Students are most often excited by her poem, "Diving into the Wreck" which uses the metaphor of the rolling ocean to describe the struggles of women:

This is the place.

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair

streams black, the merman in his armored body.

We circle silently

about the wreck

we dive into the hold.

I am she: I am he

Listen to Adrienne Rich read the entire poem.

Rich is famous for her frank views on motherhood and housewifery, and her book, “Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law” (1963), published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, artfully explores domestic duty and the tensions of being a wife and mother:

You, once a belle in Shreveport,

with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,

still have your dresses copied from that time,

and play a Chopin prelude

called by Cortot: "Delicious recollections

float like perfume through the memory."

Your mind now, moldering like wedding-cake,

heavy with useless experience, rich

with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,

crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge

of mere fact. In the prime of your life.

Nervy, glowering, your daughter

wipes the teaspoons, grows another way.

But it is her 1976 essay collection, Of Woman Born with its opening statement that made an indelible impression on me:

"All human life on the planet is born of woman.  The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body"

In this book, Rich published uncensored sections from her 1960 journal capturing her conflicting feelings about motherhood:

"My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance."

I first used Of Woman Born in my research on post-natal depression and then in the gruesome investigation into maternal filicide that ensued.  Rich’s writing also assisted in my analysis of Australian poet, Gwen Harwood’s letters and poems.  Harwood’s letters and many of her poems, specifically those written under the pseudonyms Miriam Stone and Walter Lehmann, prioritise the theme of domestic entrapment and foreground the narrator’s mixed feelings toward motherhood.

Rich explodes the myths of motherhood, breaking the silence on a topic still considered taboo and prioritising in her work what she saw as “the struggle of women toward a shared, irreversible, liberation.”  By taking Rich’s work into the classroom, I introduce a new generation of Australian students to Rich’s work and invite them all to ‘sleep with monsters’.

*Dr Cassandra Atherton is a Lecturer in Deakin University's School of Communication and Creative Arts.

Poetry as Research - See Dr Atherton talking about Adrienne Rich and reading one of her poems.

Find out more about the School of Communication and Creative Arts

Page custodian: Deakin Research
Last updated: