The poem is filled with images, many of which are created through the use of metaphors. While it may not seem obvious at first, this is a love poem. It is one that celebrates the relationship between two people who have chosen, with joy, to detour from the path that society would have them walk.
Explore Twenty-One Love Poems XIII
‘Twenty-One Love Poems XIII’ by Adrienne Rich is a metaphor-filled love poem that elevates new relationships that operate outside society’s typical expectations.
This short poem uses a number of different metaphors to describe the way that couples, particularly same-sex couples, detour from the chartered paths laid out by society and find their own way, chasing love and experience through uncharted gorges and to the sound of old songs song with new words.
Structure and Form
‘Twenty-One Love Poems XIII’ by Adrienne Rich is a fifteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of verse. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem does use lines of around the same lengths, though all the lines are around seven words long. There is a very distinctive pause in the middle of line eight, indicated by the use of an ellipse that serves as a caesura or an intentional pause in the middle of a line.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include:
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions that make a scene, feeling, etc, come alive. For example, “with a quiet bass, a flute / plucked and fingered by women outside the law.”
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “rules break like a thermometer.”
- Metaphor: the poet uses the “raven and the wren” in line four to represent the many possibilities the speaker is chasing.
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the poem’s direct descriptions. In this case, it seems very likely that Rich is alluding to the struggles same-sex couples face and how they are forced to live outside of society’s charted paths.
The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we’re out in a country that has no language
no laws, we’re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years… we’re driving through the desert
The poet begins this image-rich piece with a depiction of a thermometer breaking. It’s a device that measures the temperature with precision, and by metaphorically shattering it, she’s also breaking “the rules” (the two parts of the simile in the first line). This type of image is repeated throughout the poem.
The poet emphasizes stepping away from the normal processes of day-to-day life and the “rules” that people live by and seeing the world in a different way. This is furthered through her description of the quicksilver from the thermometer spilling across the “charted systems.” The image of systems, or roads and places that are charted, symbolizes order, safety, and reason. The quicksilver obscures the charts and maps.
She goes on to describe how she and another are “out in a country that has no language.” This indicates that people cannot, or have no interest in, communicating with one another. They are alone and united by the fact that they are on the same path, “chasing the raven and the wren.” The birds symbolize a quest to achieve something fulfilling and interesting.
It seems very likely that the “we” she’s alluding to is a same-sex couple, two women who are living off the beaten path (at least metaphorically). Same-sex relationships are something that Rich spent much of her poetic verse on, including other poems in this series.
This life which has already taken the speaker and her companion off of the charted paths also takes them through “gorges unexplored since dawn.” They are in a place and living in a certain way that’s “pure invention.”
Everything they do is unique and has never been done before. This makes the relationship between the two and the place is there going feel all the more important. Something is playing out that no one has ever seen before, or at least that’s how it feels to the speaker.
The final line of this section describes the maps that every day people use to navigate their lines as “out of date.” Things have changed dramatically since the metaphorical maps were made, and nowadays, people want to walk different paths through life.
by years… we’re driving through the desert
wondering if the water will hold out
with new words, with a quiet bass, a flute
plucked and fingered by women outside the law.
In the second half of line eight, the poet notes that “we’re driving through the desert.” They’re somewhere where they have to depend entirely on themselves. There is no one around to help them or to supply them with “water” until they make it somewhere that they can find more. The very basic fear that one is going to run out of water symbolizes a return to a simpler way of life. This is furthered through the poet’s description of the “hallucinations” that turn to “simple villages” and the “old songs” from further along in the poem.
The poet’s speaker describes hearing music on the radio; it’s a woman singing “old songs / with new words.” The “old song” that the speaker alludes to is the experience of love or relationships. The “new” version of it is what she is living. The new words are sung, and the music is plucked by “women outside the law.” The use of the word “women” rather than “a woman” suggests that this person is far from the only one singing the song or listening to it and appreciating it.
The theme of this poem is that some kinds of love, like same-sex relationships, are experienced off the beaten path where no one has charted a route.
Rich likely wrote this poem to explore the beauty of new love, particularly love between two women whose relationship has gone undefined and unaccepted by people around them.
The tone of ‘Twenty-One Love Poems XIII’ is loving and exciting. The speaker cares deeply about their partner, and their passion for the relationship comes through very clearly in the images they use.
Adrian Rich is known for her social and politically-themed poetry that was written throughout the mid to late 1900s. She won the National Book Award for her Diving Into the Wreck: Poems in 1973.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Adrienne Rich poems. For example:
- ‘A Mark of Resistance’ – voices the poet’s solidarity with those who face discrimination.
- ‘Amends’ – describes the moon’s presence in the sky and the peace it brings to humanity.
- ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ – features a critique of marriage and the systematic oppression of women.