Power by Adrienne Rich

‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich is a eulogy for the dead scientist Marie Curie. Through the poem, the poetess wants to feel her “power” as well as her indomitable courage. Curie was a famous figure in the field of science. She devoted her life along with her loving husband Pierre Curie in the research of radioactivity. The radiation of those radioactive elements started to damage her body. But she denied her physical ailments and continued with her research until she wasn’t able to do that. The poetess seeks the source of that mighty force living inside Marie Curie.

Power by Adrienne Rich

 

Summary of Power

Power’ by Adrienne Rich is about the mental “power” of the scientist Marie Curie, famous for her contribution in the field radioactivity and radioactive elements. 

At the beginning of ‘Power’, Adrienne Rich refers to human history as it is the source of inspiration to her. She uses the imagery of a backhoe excavating a bottle of amber in the upcoming section of the poem. In folk medicine, there are various uses of amber in health-related problems. There is a belief that it has some medicinal properties. Here Adrienne uses “amber” as a symbol. The next section of the poem makes it clear.

In the next section of the poem, the poetess reveals for whom she is writing this poem. The person is none other than the well-known scientist, Marie Curie. Rich was reading about her before penning down her thoughts regarding her mental power. At first, she points out the decaying physique of Curie caused by extensive experimentation with radioactive elements. The description is no doubt pathetic and heart-wrenching. In the penultimate section of the poem, Rich presents her resolution in the manner of a sonnet. In her words, Curie died like a soul constantly denying her mortal “wounds”. At last, the poetess says that Curie got her power from the “same source” from which a man also gets his power.

You can read the full poem Power here.

 

Meaning of Power

The title of the poem is short but suggestive. The word “power” is a reference to the will force of Marie Curie. It also suggests Curie’s mental capacity to continue her research, denying her “radiation sickness”. The significance of the title becomes clear to the readers at the end of the poem.

 

Structure of Power

‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich consists of four stanzas. Like other poems of Rich, it has an unconventional structure. The first stanza has only one line while the third and the longest stanza of the poem has eight lines. The last stanza has an uncommon formation. The second and the third line of this stanza have two and one words respectively. Such a form of the last line is for the sake of emphasizing her idea regarding Curie’s mental strength.

There is no specific rhyme scheme in the poem. If readers scan the poem metrically, they can find that there is also not any regularity in the meter. The majority of the feet are in iambic meter with some trochaic variations here and there. Being a poem of modern literature it has such an unconventional structure.

 

Literary Devices in Power

Let us have a look at the literary devices used in the poem ‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich.

  • Stanza 1: To begin with, “earth-deposits” is the use of metaphor in the first line. Though it sounds simple, there is a meaning hidden inside the phrase “earth-deposits of our history”. Like the layers of the lithosphere hides the traces of our past, there are certain characters who remain buried in the pages of history. In this poem, the character is Marie Curie. Rich mentions her importance in the following sections of the poem.
  • Stanza 2: Adrienne uses a set of metaphors in this section also. Rich refers to “backhoe” to imply herself. She is actually acting like a backhoe here; she is gathering information about the dead scientist. “Amber” is again a metaphor. She is actually referring to Curie here. In the last line “winters of this climate” is not a suggestion of the actual winter season. It is a reference to the critical phases of someone’s life. In this poem, it’s definitely a reference to the poetess’ morose situation. Readers can find another literary device in the phrase “for fever”. It’s an alliteration.
  • Stanza 3: In this section, Adrienne invests radioactive elements with the ability to bombard within the body of Marie Curie. It is the use of personification. There is a use of anaphora in the sixth and seventh lines of this stanza. In this stanza readers can find alliteration in the following phrases, “she suffered” and “body bombarded”.
  • Stanza 4: In the last stanza the poetess uses the phrase, “denying her wounds” twice. It is an example of palilogy. The poetess puts emphasis on her idea by the repetition of this phrase. There is alliteration in the phrase, “same source”.

 

Themes in Power

In ‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich there are some important themes to focus while reading. These themes are power, sacrifice, history and denial. Let’s discuss the themes one by one.

 

Power

The major theme of the poem is power. The poetess refers to two kinds of power, one destructive and another constructive. The mental power of Curie is that constructive force that helped her to sail through with her experiments. Another facade of power is the destructive side of radioactive elements which damages Curie’s whole body gradually.

 

Sacrifice

The theme of sacrifice is another element of the poem. It’s Curie’s selflessness which helped the whole scientific world to prosper in the field of radioactivity. She knew the thing with which she was daily working, was eating her body each day. But she denied stopping her work. She accepted the sickness as a part of the process and devoted her life to the advancement of science.

 

History

There is a reference to history which is a minor theme in the poem. Rich refers to history as a source of remedies. History helps us to know ourselves better. There are instances when it provides us mental strength in the “winters” of our lives. The pages of history helped Rich to know about the mental courage of Marie Curie when she was feeling low at a specific point in her life.

 

Denial

The theme of denial is another important thing to discuss here. In the poem, denial doesn’t mean not accepting reality. Rich says that Marie Curie denied “her wounds”. Actually Curie denied the fact that the bodily wounds would inflict her mental strength. She accepted the reality at the same time she denied the beliefs. She knew that the power inside her soul was much stronger than the radiation.

 

Analysis of Power

Stanza 1

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

In ‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich the first line may seem incoherent at first with respect to the other sections of the poem. But it is significant while taking the subject matter of the poem in totality. There is a reference to history and its importance in a person’s life. Rich says that we have a deep connection with our past. But true history remains hidden under the earthly layers of bias and orthodoxy of the society. The poetess refers to someone living there, in the real world of unheard history. She is none other than the famous scientist Marie Curie. It becomes in the third stanza of the poem.

 

Stanza 2

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth

(…)

for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

In some critical appreciations of the poem ‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich the significance of this section is unclear and doubtful. But there are certain images that we, as readers can take as a reference while reading the third stanza of the poem. If we skip this section and read the third stanza first, the importance of the lines become clear. At first, visualize the image of a backhoe excavating the ground present in the first line of this stanza. The poetess compares the poetic persona to the backhoe. Like a backhoe excavates the upper layers to find something buried underneath, the speaker is finding some truthful accounts from the pages of history.

After the excavation, the speaker tells the reader that a “hundred-year-old” bottle of amber is found. Amber is a type of resin. In folk medicine, it is used as a healing agent. The poetess associates a different idea with this amber. It is in fact a symbol. She is referring to Curie in the guise of this material. Her story inspires poetess. It gives her courage and hope in the tough “winters” of her life. Curie’s dedication and courage is not only the source of inspiration to the poetess but also for us. The only question is whether we have read about her life or not.

 

Stanza 3

Today I was reading about Marie Curie

(…)

till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

In this stanza, Adrienne Rich makes it clear to the readers of whose power she is talking in her poem. The poetess was reading about the life of Marie Curie on the day of writing this poem. She doesn’t focus on the preliminary phases of Curie’s life. Rich quickly jumps to the time when she was suffering from “radiation sickness”. The poetess thinks that she might have been ignorant of this disease. The radiation of the elements on which she was doing her research, affected her cells. But Curie had a strong heart and her mind was powerful enough to bear those external pains.

According to the poetess she denied that she could not continue her work with her drooping health. She denied that she could not see well for cataracts on her eyes. She denied the pain she felt while working with her hands. Due to the side effects of radiation, her skin cracked. Her suppurating finger ends caused her pain but she denied such kind of bodily agitations. She continued her work “till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil”.

Here Rich projects Curie’s spirit of denial and her lifelong perseverance. Curie was not like a lady of romance. She was a fighter in her mind and a soldier at her soul. She knew how to stay calm when her body was constantly giving her excruciating pain. It was not possible if she did not have such a tough mind and strong will power.

 

Stanza 4

She died a famous woman denying

(…)

her wounds came from the same source as her power.

In the last stanza of the poem ‘Power’, Adrienne Rich says that Marie Curie died like a “famous woman”. Her devotion to the work brought her fame and she is the fountainhead of the studies related to radiation and radioactive elements. Individually she got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. Before that, she received the prize with her husband in 1903.

In the next three lines, the poetess focuses solely on her unconquerable will and her self-denial. According to the poetess, Curie denied her “wounds” throughout her life and the courage came from her mind. The usage of the word “wound” is significant here. It might be a reference to the physical wounds of Curie caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. It can be a hint to her mental wounds which she received as a woman from the phallocentric ideals of the society. That is why the poetess uses the “denying her wounds” twice in the poem. The first one referring to her radiation sickness. The second one points to her mental wounds. The wound remained invisible and constantly caused her pain. But with a smile on her face, she refused to submit or yield. Imitating Adrienne’s words readers can say, she “denied” to give up.

 

Historical Context of Power

‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich was first published in her poetry collection named “Dream of a Common Language: Poem 1974-1977”. This poem of Rich is well known for its brevity and directness. Various critics from all over the world have studied this poem and gave their critical insight into it. At that time when Rich was writing this poem, second-wave feminism was at its pinnacle. Women were vocal about different kinds of inequalities that a woman faces in her society, family, workplace, and other institutions. They wanted equal rights and importance in society.

In this context, the subject matter of the poem is relevant in accordance with the ideas of feminism. There is a reference to the negligible presence of women in historical works. Curie’s “wounds” is again a reference to the unequal treatment which she received from her family and at her work. In this way, the historical context makes the poem more meaningful and significant to the readers.

 

Similar Poetry

Let us have a look at the poems which are related to the theme and subject matter of ‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich.

  • To Madame Curie by Alice Morre Dunbar-Nelson – This poem of Nelson closely resembles the subject matter of ‘Power’. Here the poetess praises Marie Curie and her genius.
  • The Ache of Marriage by Denise Levertov – This poem is written during the period of second-wave feminism. It represents the mental “ache” of the poetic persona caused by the difficulties in her marital relationship. There is a similarity in the pain felt by Marie Curie and the poetic persona in Levertov’s poem.
  • Daddy by Sylvia Plath – This poem by Plath is famous for the speaker’s directness and her feminist ideals. The tone of the poem is close to that of ‘Power’. Both highlight the mental strength of a woman.
  • Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath – This poem presents a woman’s fighting spirit. In this poem, the poetess highlights the obstacles which a woman faces at different stages of her life. In ‘Power’ there is a reference to the physical and mental challenges which Curie faced while continuing her research. Both of the poems celebrate the courage and conviction of a woman.

You can read about the biography of Sylvia Plath here.

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