Amends by Adrienne Rich

Amends’ by Adrienne Rich is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines. While Rich has chosen not to utilize a rhyme scheme in this piece, she has made use of other poetic techniques. For instance, she has chosen to repeat the short phrase, “as if” a number of times throughout the poem. These two words begin eight of the poem’s 24 lines. 

Additionally, Rich has chosen to use very little punctuation in the piece. In fact, the entire poem is comprised of one long, drawn-out phrase that runs from the first word to the last without a period. She made this choice in an effort to mimic the movements of the moonlight that features so prominently in ‘Amends.’ It moves steadily over the earth, just as the reader will move steadily through the poem without any punctuation to halt one’s progress.

Amends by Adrienne Rich


Summary of Amends

Amends’ by Adrienne Rich describes the purity of moonlight as it passes over, and soaks into, the face of the earth. 

The speaker begins by describing the purity of the moon’s light and how on certain nights it is more meaningful than others. The night of this poem’s telling is one such night. The light emerges from behind an apple tree, crosses the ocean, pauses for a moment on the sand of the shore, relishing in the solidity of the earth, and then begins to climb. 

The moonlight moves up a cliff face and then comes into contact with humanity. It is forced to travel through gash-like “quarries” and across the vast piles of waste humankind has discarded. It finally reaches the population of the earth and rests of the eyelids of all the sleepers, hoping to “amend” the actions of humanity. The purity of light is being wielded as a weapon for the good of the earth. 


Analysis of Amends

Stanza One

Nights like this: on the cold apple-bough
on the ground, moonlight picking at small stones

The poem begins with the speaker stating that there are certain nights of the year, or perhaps certain nights scattered throughout time, where light has a certain property. It holds an increased amount of meaning in these instances.  

It is on one of these nights that the speaker begins ‘Amends.’ The first and second lines state that the light on a “Night like this” seems to “explode” out of a “cold apple-bough.” The light emanates from this very specific place. It is likely that Rich chose the boughs of an apple tree as the apparent source of the light for its literary and religious significance. The tree bore forth knowledge, and now it is shining a light upon the world. 

The light is not appearing from anywhere but is actually shining from the moon, through the branches of the tree. It just looks as if it is coming from the “bark,” when in reality it comes from a force far greater. It moves from the tree to the “ground” and across the landscape “picking” its way over “small stones.” This is just the start for the moonlight, it has a long journey ahead as it moves across the surface of the earth. 


Stanza Two 

as it picks at greater stones as it rises with the surf
as it flicks across the tracks

The second stanza picks up right where the first left off with the first of the “as it” phrases. Due to the fact that this poem is one sentence, the reader will not come to the end of the phrase until the final line. Many of these lines seem to hang in space without a conclusion, this was done on purpose so that it will seem as though there is no end or beginning. One line runs into another. 

The moonlight is moving over the small and “greater stones,” and begins to “rise with the surf.” Now a reader will understand that the light has started below the horizon, in the place that the apple tree resides, and has now begun to touch the ocean waves. 

The light has made its way to the shore, and like a human being, “lays[s] its cheek…on the sand.” It only pauses briefly, but it still takes a moment to feel the solidity of the earth and the texture of the sand. 

From here it moves up a cliff face that abuts the coast. The texture of this feature is less pleasing than the small grains of the sand. The cliff is “broken” and there a “ledges” the light must overcome. It does so easily, and “flows up the cliffs,” to the “tracks.” This is the first moment of true human presence that the poet has allowed entering into the story. She made this choice to show the purity of the world without humankind, thereby increasing the coming contrast. 


Stanza Three

as it unavailing pours into gash
of the crop dusting plane

In the third stanza, the poet confronts the impact of humankind on the face of the earth. The moonlight has moved away from the purity of the previous watery landscape to a new one that has been cut up and added to by humanity. 

The light is now pouring “unavailing” into a “gash.” It is clear from this word choice that the “quarry” to which it refers is not natural. It is a blemish, or “gash,” upon the landscape. The quarry is made of, and filled with, “sand-and-gravel” it has been tuned to that purpose. 

Next, the light moves on to the “hangared fuselage.” This refers to the body of a crop-dusting airplane that has been discarded, or stored, in a “hangar.” The location is most likely less of a hangar, and more of a trash dump for ancient pieces of equipment. 


Stanza Four

as it soaks through cracks into trailers
as if to make amends.

In the final section of the poem, the light reaches its last narrated location. Up until this point, it was more like the light was moving over surfaces rather than penetrating them. Now, the light is “soak[ing]” into the “cracks” of “trailers.” The pure and untouched light of the moon is entering into the dirty, contaminated lives of human beings who are “tremulous with sleep.” 

These people are shaking or shivering in their sleep, they are filled with their own lives and histories. The moonlight pauses on the “eyelids of the sleepers.” These “sleepers” are all of humankind. All people have played a part in changing the face of the earth and are receiving equal treatment from the light of the moon. There, the light “dwells.” 

In the last line of the poem all of the “as it” statements come to a conclusion. The light has been moving across the face of the earth in an attempt to heal, or “as if to make amends.” The purity of the moon is hoping, through its sheer beauty and presence, to fix what humanity has done to the planet. 

The damage refers to the structures built, the harm done to the environment, or even the sheer waste that has accumulated. It also refers to the mental and spiritual state of humanity itself. 

Perhaps, the moon will be able to change something that has so far been ingrained in the minds of humankind, the need to dominate, control, and consume. This is what needs to be amended most of all. 

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  • Avatar doodoo says:

    thanks so much!! it really helped…

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Glad to be of service.

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