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XIII (Dedications)

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour.      I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a gray day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains' enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet.    I know you are reading this poem
As the underground train loses momentum and before
              running up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age.     I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
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.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, 
                 torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing 
                 else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

—Adrienne Rich

Jane Hirshfield reads and discusses Adrienne Rich's “XIII (Dedications)”

Transcription of Commentary

I'm Jane Hirshfield, reading “(Dedications),” by Adrienne Rich.

“(Dedications)” is the final section of Adrienne Rich's thirteen-part “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” The full poem is a work of stocktaking, an inventory both personal and cultural. It was finished almost thirty years ago, in 1991: the year of the first Gulf War, of Rodney King's beating and Anita Hill's disregarded testimony, the year of the break-up of the Soviet Union, of CNN and the 24 hour news cycle, of the unstoppable, rising death toll of HIV-AIDS. Read decades after its writing, “An Atlas of the Difficult World” remains a startlingly relevant map of unsolved griefs.

“(Dedications),” the poem's closing section, offers what also abides: its relevant solace. The poem is a litany of community-summoning and blessing. It holds an album of lives, and of longings, recognized and unrecognized both. The poem creates, too, in the way that art's outward looking makes almost always also a mirror, a self-portrait of its author. Rich's own longing, fears, and hope are here, and her fierce, lifelong, unrelenting desire to write words that might serve.

Rich was a poet of political awareness, ecological awareness, social awareness, eros awareness, and language awareness. She wrote from and of the inseparability of these ways of seeing and feeling, and she wrote of shared lives and shared fates. One of this poem's central intentions and gifts is the way it enacts and expands our sense of what and who we might mean when we say the word “we.”  She described poetry as “a liberative language, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves.” The definition of liberation as connection—with not only the like but the unlike—was for Rich a foundational value. The same contract is at the core of any genuinely democratic self-governance, and at the core of a working literature, a working relationship, a working compassion.

Rich sets into “(Dedications)” both our necessary solitudes and our necessary ties. Each person described here stands or sits inside one moment alone (inside the reader's necessary and focusing solitude, inside the inner life), and at the same time is in a world among and with others. The figures resemble those in the separate windows of a painting by Edward Hopper. Yet the central, great sleight of tongue in this poem is the way its shape-shifting, transformative second-person “you” makes of separate lives the felt experience of a communal whole. We see the lives in the windows and we step inside them, inside the continuous world we also live in.

It's worth pausing to look more closely at the way this experience is made. The “you” addressed in each sentence is singular, local, specific—a  person young or old, in love, in exhaustion, in grief or hope or desperation, each of them reaching back for these words from within their own distinct place in the difficult world. And yet each uttered “you” cannot help but also be heard by the person now reading the poem as himself, as herself. We read that simple, acknowledging phrase, “and you too are thirsty,” and, each time, “I am” comes as answer.

To change one into many and many into one is one of the alchemical possibilities of the second-person pronoun in English. It's also, in a larger way, one of the alchemies of poetry itself: whatever comes into awareness while reading a poem becomes subjective. We read poems as we see: from the inside. And we read poems as we feel and understand anything: with the heart-mind’s unboundaried capacity for empathy.

This poem is propelled by empathy. The poem is also propelled by its craft of music and structure. It moves on the twin devices of list and anaphora's parallel structure, the way each sentence begins with the same set of words. Any American poet reading “(Dedications)” cannot help but hear in it also some trace of the earlier voice of Walt Whitman, who set out to define a still-new country in part by his own many lists. Any poem with a list of a certain length signals “more”—that the list could go on without end. Whitman summoned our American awareness of a vast and shared country by naming its almost infinite parts and labors, its lives and places. He founded an understanding of American poetry as one that takes up (in some of its poems, by no means all) that larger task: the creation of a shared, unconfining definition of the country's nature, not by generalization but by an embrace of the actual topography of the real, in our lives and in the lives of others. Whitman set out to create and strengthen the warmly affectionate “we” of “E Pluribus Unum”— “from many one.” “(Dedications)” takes up that task in turn.

Both Whitman and Rich wrote, too, in the grief of America's still-incompletion—grief that this great “we” remains fragile, in progress, imperiled. Both Rich and Whitman are poets unblinded to our profound imperfection, yet hopeful: they set out to make with their words the country they hoped might exist. Rich was a poet and an activist of inclusion. No one was abandoned by her gaze or by the rigor of her compassion even in judgment. Dignity and the fullness of being were for her both words' and life's measure.

Rich knew well that her work was part of a longer historical arc. But her “wild patience”—the phrase comes from another book's title, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far—meant she could not simply wait and hope that the rest of the country would someday join her. “Poetry,” she said in one interview, “can add its grain to an accumulation of consciousness against the idea that there is no alternative.” She was in this work of possibility-addition for the long run. However dark her poems' vision could at times be, Rich meant to counter despair. She meant to increase our hunger for justice, for dignity, for a sane politics, sane relationships, and a sane ecological ethic. Her steady, life-saving envisioning of what she found present, what she saw missing, cut windows into the walls of our separation, doors into the silences of our ignorance, complacency, inattention. Reading Rich can feel as if each poem were the conjuring of a password into a life more awake, alert, and unguarded. That is my experience reading this poem, in which she imagines and summons her readers, her plural, singular, thirsty, companions: You. I. We.

Part XIII “(Dedications)” from “An Atlas of the Difficult World”. Copyright © 2016 by the Adrienne Rich Literary Trust.

Copyright © 1991 by Adrienne Rich, from COLLECTED POEMS: 1950-2012 by Adrienne Rich.

Used by Permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Audio recording use by permission of The Frances Goldin Literary Agency.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Read “For What Binds Us” by Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield (1953- ) was born in New York City and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of eight poetry collections, including The Beauty (2015), long-listed for the National Book Award; Come Thief (2011); and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has also written two essay collections on the deep workings of poetry and has edited and co-translated four books collecting the work of early world poets. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, The Academy of American Poets, and the National Endowment for the Arts. A visiting poet at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, and elsewhere, she served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012-2018. Photo credit: Nick Rosza.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of 25 poetry collections, including A Change of World (1951), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; Diving into the Wreck (1973), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry; and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems1988-1991 (1991), winner of the Poets’ Prize. Rich received fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the National Book Award.