The Gift and the Anguish of Adrienne Rich (1929-2012): “Gabriel”

Some poetry is like a staircase of gold. The reader can plant his feet firmly on each beautiful, priceless step as it carries him higher. Other poetry is like a butterfly, brightly beautiful. The reader can enjoy following the path of its flight, but the butterfly is always illusive. Just at the moment when the reader thinks he has it within his grasp, it flits off in another direction, higher and out of reach. For the most part, the poetry of Adrienne Rich is like a whole intellectual field of butterflies, darting here and there, enriching the mind and the senses, expanding the soul.

In her poem “Gabriel”, Rich hovers at the portal between two worlds: her early poetry in which she is trying to find her own voice among the many she admires and tries to emulate, and her later, feminist poetry in which the voice she has found is darkly disturbed and angry. Her own life reflects this struggle between her “earlier concerns with a past – secure, rigid, inexorably gone – and with a present which threatens a deadly isolation,” (Early Poetry of Adrienne Rich, by Mary Slowik). This poem shows how she is torn between these worlds, afraid to go forward and afraid to go back, hanging onto both worlds as long as she can.

In “Gabriel”, Rich’s insecurity and confusion are evident in the first two lines: “There are no angels yet / here comes an angel”. Who is this angel? Can Rich be speaking of her Muse? Her voice? But the poet is a woman and the angel is:

“one      /with a man’s face        young
shut-off       the dark
side of the moon turning to me
and saying:
I am the plumed
serpent      the beast
with fangs of fire and a gentle
heart.”

In “The Angels Chiding: Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law”, critic Claire Keyes calls this choice of imagery “Adrienne Rich’s obsession with demons”. She goes on to say that the demons “may also be angels. In essence, these demons take over a woman caught between expressing her creative energies and remaining in her traditional role as a woman. No compromise seems possible.”

But for feminist poet Adrienne Rich, giving the angel/demon a masculine gender seems antipathetical. Keyes explains it this way: “Because the poet fears reprisal, she writes other poems in which she maintains an identification with men, either in adopting the male persona, taking on male attitudes or imitating male poets, primarily Yeats”. The critic goes on to say that Rich “is possessed by another demon – the specter of male approval”.

In the second verse Rich vacillates again by saying the angel/demon doesn’t speak at all.

“His message
drenches his body
he’d want to kill me
for using words to name him”

This verse focuses on Rich’s obsession with the inadequacy of language as a form of communication, as in her poem “I Am in Danger – Sir –“, in which she sees “the air buzzing with spoiled language,” and in, “Like This Together”, in which she says, “Our words misunderstand us”. Rich struggles with language, says Keyes, every word and phrase essential in her quest to find “the language that holds the key to transforming power” (The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich, by Claire Keyes). The poet also blames language for “the inability to communicate which destroys the relationship between men and women”(Early Poetry of Adrienne Rich, Mary Slowik).

In the fourth verse, her sense of alienation from all that is safely known and familiar is voiced in the words, ”I sit in the bare apartment / reading”. But even reading no longer brings her comfort. Something is wrong.

“Words stream past me       poetry
twentieth century rivers
disturbed surfaces       reflecting clouds
reflecting wrinkled neon
but clogged       and mostly
nothing alive left
in their depths”

This is a scathing indictment of male-dominated modern poetry, a decided about-face from those days when “Rich’s earliest mentors were men,” says Keyes. When Rich wrote “At A Bach Concert” around 1950, she mouthed the universal male poet attitude that “a too-compassionate art is half an art” (Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics, by Craig Werner), drawing praise from W. H. Auden for her “capacity for detachment of self and its emotions” (Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951-1981, by Jane Cooper). But Werner says that, “as she came to feel that her regard for the world differed . . . from that of the male poets . . . Rich repudiated the detached ironies and polished performances which had come to dominate academic modernism”.

Rich started putting dates on her poems in the mid-1950s because she wanted her readers to understand that she was “engaged in a long, continuing process” (Werner). This was at the time when she was rejecting “the dominant critical idea that the poem’s text should be read as separate from the poet’s everyday life” (Werner).

The angel – who perhaps represents her earlier male mentors – is now “barely speaking” to her.

“Once in a horn of light
he stood       or someone like him
salutations in gold-leaf
ribboning from his lips”

Rich could be speaking here of a time when everything seemed so clear and her mentors, especially Auden, were singing her praises.

“Today again       the hair streams
to his shoulders
the eyes reflect something
like a lost country        or so I think”

The imagination is quick to embrace the vision of a patriarchal poet with hair streaming to his shoulders. This angel/poet, however, shows something of confusion or disapproval in his eyes. But Rich is not sure, and she betrays her own confusion once again.

“but the ribbon has reeled itself
up
he isn’t giving
or taking any shit
We glance miserably
across the room       at each other”

Once again, the male and female are not communicating. Each repudiates the other’s values. Rich can no longer accept the “old boy” masculine ideals that cling tightly to the status quo, especially where women are concerned. And the male/angel/poet refuses to be intimidated by Rich, a woman who is no longer content within the boundaries of “passivity, submission, and masochism” (Cooper).

Still, Rich’s doubts and fears about this venture into the unknown rear their Medusa heads again.

“It’s true       there are moments
closer and closer together
when words stick       in my throat
‘the art of love’
‘the art of words’

In the closing verse Rich acknowledges Gabriel’s unspoken message – the message that he disapproves. But Rich cannot let go of his approval, or his friendship, altogether “Just will you stay looking/straight at me/ awhile longer,” she says.

But like the butterfly, this poem is hard to pin down. Rather than grasping it, one might only cup it in his mind for a few moments before letting it dart off in another direction. Such a direction might be toward other “angel” identities: “her [Jewish] father, a doctor, [who] greatly influenced her intellectual development” (Keyes), and whom she says “had been, for me, such an ambiguous figure, so tremendously rewarding on the one hand, and also such an obstacle”, whose daughter was “raised as a son, taught to study but not to pray, taught to hold reading and writing sacred” (Keyes); then there is also her husband, to whom was written “Like This Together”, and who committed suicide in 1970 – a subject about which she refuses to write, poetically or otherwise, though some critics think he may have been alluded to metaphorically in a couple of her poems (Keyes).

The one thing that is certain is the anguish in this poem. Even the unorthodox spacing of the words (a style she uses in several poems), and the lack of punctuation boundaries, seems to indicate it. These could be used to show her overpowering emotions (“words stick     in my throat”), how she gropes for the right words, haltingly spacing them.

In this poem, if the reader had looked through a window as Adrienne Rich was sounding these words, he might have seen and heard deep, wrenching sobs between those words – Adrienne Rich weeping for a past that had brought her a measure of happiness, that expressed her fear of an uncertain future.

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