The Dark Fields of the Republic, “To The Days” by Adrienne Rich
In Adrienne Rich’s selected poems book, Dark Fields of the Republic, there is a heavy political element to her storytelling. She’s known for her work in feminism and a heavy focus in lesbian literature and activism in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as many of her poems centering around Judaism. Her work is very context-dependent both in terms of the time period and in terms of the language used. For the purpose of this essay, I will be focusing mainly on the features of her work, and how these certain characteristics function alongside the context of the poems.
Firstly we must discuss the political context of Rich’s poetry and how it applies to her later work, such as “To The Days,” written in 1991. In the essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing As A Re-vision,” Rich discusses how her writing developed alongside the political context of the time period and shared a poem that offered a glimpse into her mindset before writing “To The Days”. The poem in question is titled, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger’s”.
“Aunt Jennifer’s tigers stride across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on striding, proud and unafraid”
Rich cites this poem written in the ’50s as an example of her work before she began to read and write through a feminist lens. During this time period, women were strictly bound to the domestic field, and Rich found that her writing reflected the cognitive dissonance she felt operating through this constraint. In the essay, she writes that despite her poems being praised for their gracefulness, “I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.” She was writing through the lens of a woman writing for men, as she describes in the essay. Her inability to do this didn’t allow for her to be fully present in her writing, unlike in “To The Days,” which is directly tied to her connection with the world and herself. The context of her the time period allows for readers to see the shift in perspective in her works and how it shifted alongside her political work and beliefs.
The poem “To The Days” is a fascinating example of Rich’s poems and shows how both her use of conventions and contextual aspects contribute to the poem. In the title of the poem, we see that it is utilizing a speech act—which is the type of speech and how it is used—in this case, we have the title of the poem addressing the concept of “the days,” almost like an open letter to the days she is referring to. The first line in the first stanza, “From you, I want more than I have ever asked,” utilizes the second person to address the days in a different tone, one that suggests a demand rather than an address. Through the title of the poem, there is now context given to the pronoun “you”. The title of this poem, like all poems, is very deliberate in this sense and allows for the reader to gain footing as they continue throughout the rest of the stanzas.
From this stanza, we can not only understand the connotations of the following lines, but we can also start from an explication from them as well. The speaker demands more from the days, asking to know, “the newscast’s terrible stories of life in my time,” in the second and third lines. From the speaking act in the first line, we can infer that the speaker wants the burden of the terrors in like, asking to be witness to them and even experience them herself.
In the second stanza, we see the use of imagery imployed to give further context to the setting of the poem. Rich uses simplistic phrases like, “Fog in the mornings,” in the first line of the second stanza, as well as, “Blue soaking through fog,” in the second line of the third stanza in order to place the reader in her home setting. There are instances of specific vegetation purposefully scattered about the poem, such as, “in the Mexican gardens, corn and roses,” in the second line of the last stanza. These are specific to her home in California where Rich resided for the remainder of her life. This repeated imagery is important in grounding the poem, offering a glimpse into her life as the speaker asks for a glimpse into yours.
There is an abrupt transition in the fourth stanza, the first line reads, “Suddenly I understand the verb without tenses.” Here the speaking act shifts from, “I want to know,” to “I know”. There is a sense of certainty throughout the stanza that was not present before. Rich’s political element comes through here as well in the last line of the stanza, “To be human, said Rosa—I can’t teach you that.” Rich notes that Rosa Luxemburg is a prominent Jewish socialist during the late 1800’s. Rich often places important figures in her work, giving further context in terms of the time period of her work. Though looking further than the contextual time period, this line makes a bold claim that the first half of the poem seeks to understand. Suddenly the speaker understands humanity is something that must be experienced and not taught. This bold realization is highlighted through the shift in the speaking act from a demand to a realization.
The last line in the fifth stanza repeats the beginning demand, “I want more from you than I ever knew to ask,” further utilizing that demand from the beginning stanza, and coming full circle in the speaker’s realization. It is through Rich’s vibrant use of imagery, repetition, and speaking acts that she is able to build context both the language and time period of the poem. By analyzing her work from a different time period, we are able to see how these conventions evolved from being disconnected from the speaker to having a rich and developed voice throughout and being so intrinsic to the poem that the message is lost without it. These conventions work to illuminate the interpretation of the poem and allow for a shift in the narrative of the poem as well. It delves into the many concepts Adrienne Rich is known for, focusing on both politics and the nature of humanity, which gives “To The Days” a profound and heartfelt meaning.