Sunday, September 26, 2010

Responding to "Living In Sin" by Adrienne Rich.

Living in Sin
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own---
envoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

by Adrienne Rich (1955)

The Inevitable Burden of Dreaming of a Better World
by Fred Dodsworth (2010)

In Mid 20th Century America, the opportunities Adrienne Rich had to exercise her intellectual and creative talents were claustrophobically constrained. While her husband pursued an academic career at a prestigious institution, Rich’s options were restricted to the domestic: “Kinder, Küche, and Kirche.”* Poetry afforded her the opportunity to plunder life for images, situations and feelings she used to speak strongly and aesthetically to her concerns. Written in one long stanza divided into seven vignettes, this poem uses eroticized imagery juxtaposed with crude descriptions and subtle religious references to explore what it meant to be a woman. “Living in Sin” contrasts the idyllic fantasy of a romantic relationship with the harsh reality of a sidelined, disempowered woman and insists we look beneath the molding, to confront the grimy, vermin-infested culture that restricts women.

“She had thought the studio would keep itself/no dust upon the furniture of love,” we’re told in the first line, identifying the poem’s narrator: woman, individual and collectively; tone: disappointed; and condition: dirty and oppressed. These remain consistent throughout the work and contrast with the poem’s persistent romantic/erotic charge. Strong sibilance and long E-sounds sing us into the text while weak implicatures tell us to “study” the poem and recognize the conflict between erotic impulse and women’s restricted roles. The dusty “furniture of love” foreshadows estrangement and the alliterative “half heresy” and the title; “Living in Sin,” encourage the reader to consider the influence of traditional religious values. Last Rich draws attention to the dirty panes and noisy taps. Symbolically the plaintive tone of the plumbing references woman’s complaints with her plight and trouble, out of sight in this ostensibly idyllic scene. Similarly, dirty windows suggest visible signs of distress in plain sight while allowing Rich to neatly use the homonym “panes” to suggest her suffering while reinforcing the conflict over “women’s work.”

Rich increases the erotic charge in the second vignette and set us up for the social/ sexual conflict of the milkman in the third. Continuing the playful alliterative P sounds started with “panes,” the poet presents a pear — symbol of woman’s sexual availability — and a piano. She reinforces this sexualized imagery with a cat and the alliterative moaning sound of “amusing mouse,” more symbols of female sexuality. Calling the mouse “picturesque” continues the alliterative P while referencing the socio-cultural meme which encourages women to be ‘picture pretty” sexual objects. Making the cat and mouse respond to “his urgings,” the author crafts lustful imagery that is immediately reactive to the masculine presence. She shatters this erotic reverie with the entrance of an ambiguous second male, the milkman with the sonically rapidly moving: “Not that at five each separate stair would writhe/under the milkman’s tramp.” The milkman is a complex figure because his entrance at five signals the new day and its social responsibilities more than his erotic possibilities while deliberately evoking the cliché of milkmen as sexual partners. Such word choices as “writhe/under,” in which “writhe” is stressed by “five,” and the carefully coupled “milkman’s tramp” allow us to question Rich’s intention.** Is she sabotaging the sexual primacy of her lover/husband?† Is she alluding to lustful feelings toward another? The poem does not tell us but the resonant inference allows us to wonder. Blocking the milkman’s entrance with a semicolon, Rich darkens the tone of this third vignette by using the brightness of the “morning’s light” to coldly “delineate the scraps/of last night’s cheese and three sepulchral bottles.” The feast of the night before confronts the morning after and the death of love. The three gravestone-like bottles suggest the three crosses of Calvary Hill, which overlaid Aphrodite’s Temple of Love. Modern Christian values force “her,” a priestess in Aphrodite’s temple, to abandon egalitarian hierogamy and become a janitor. Her failure is witnessed by “a pair of beetle-eyes.” The disturbing image of a beetle standing amongst the saucers moves the poem into the kitchen and the fourth vignette.

The following powerful tableaux symbolically depict “woman’s” degraded social status. The kitchen and saucers serve metonymical for the distaff world, in this case polluted by the foulness of a beetle. Worse, it is not a singular beetle but “an envoy from some village in the moldings” with its eyes fixed unto “her own,” representing the collective judgment of the other, all who would see and judge woman for household disarray, including the insect infestation itself. As woman she’s accountable without regard to her other obligations, dreams or desires. He is not. This is most powerfully exemplified in the following:
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes.

By devoting four lines to his desultory response Rich gives great weight to “his” lack of remedial action. Whereas she must confront the dishabille of their shared home and the judgment of the studio’s insect colony, he passes judgment upon her. Up until this point his only action has been to urge on the cat and mouse, with all the inherently explicit sexual connotations that image provoked. Now he yawns. Worse, “he… sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard/declared it out of tune.” The piano becomes a stand in for “her” and she has been found wanting or “out of tune.” His dismissal is then accentuated by gazing into the mirror and shrugging. These are the physical actions of a man who doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter that in the real world we all yawn and shrug or belch and fart. In this context his yawn and shrug say she is inconsequential. Then he “rubbed at his beard.” In addition to stressing his maleness, “to beard” someone is to confront them in their territory, to insult them Bartleby.com tells us. In the fourth vignette she is confronted in her symbolic territory, the kitchen, in the fifth she is insulted and dismissed. Rich closes this scene with abandonment as he “went out for cigarettes.”

As this emotionally devastating image of chastisement resonates, the poet forces us to acknowledge the many forces brought to bear to insure female compliance. Metaphorically the jeering “minor demons” in the penultimate vignette echo the “village in the moldings” in the fourth, and represent every woman’s internal self-criticism plus the social pressures compelling women to succumb to the distaff realm. At the same time “minor demons” reference religion’s role in forcing women into this compromise. To fail to acquiesce to her lot in life, to a life of subordination and obedience to her husband, is to dispute God’s Plan, a sin.

The final two scenes return us to a world where women acquiesce to their “obligations” and love their men, but there is trouble in Paradise. In the penultimate vignette the protagonist falls to task, making beds, dusting tables, and boiling coffee, all the while expressing implicit resistance with an erotic subtext. She does not just make the bed, “she pulls back the sheets” to reveal what has been hidden, encouraging us to examine the pathology that links Eros and “Cleanliness, which is next to Godliness.” Similarly the coffee is made, but “boil(s) over on the stove,” the stove metonymically representing woman, her sexuality, even her genitalia.†† She is coming to a boil and spilling out everywhere. Sonically the poem speeds up with short words utilizing sibilance and brisk t-sounds and spondees “table-top” and “coffee-pot” to further accelerate the poem while again tying domestic obligations to sexuality. Rich resolves the final vignette with a return to love but tempered. “By evening she was back in love again, though not so wholly.” This rich homonymic word choice references a lack of wholeness, the incompleteness of the profoundly constricted female experience, and the disconnect between holy sexuality and oppressive gender restrictions. Love is under siege. Now she “feel(s) the daylight coming,” the ominous image of “a relentless milkman up the stairs” suggests stern consequences are coming as well.

The world has changed dramatically in the 55 years since “Living in Sin” was published. After the 1960s “Women’s Movement,” the distaff half now dominates in colleges and the workforce, and every day more and more women hold the highest reins of power from politics to business. This is true in fields as diverse as journalism and medicine. That said men and women today are as full of “Strum und Drang” around “Women’s Roles” and sexuality as they have been at any time in recent history. National figures like Carly Fiornia make catty comments about her opponents hairstyle’s, national journalists discuss Hillary Clinton’s clothing choices, and men wonder why women aren’t more sexually aggressive (when they’re not “hysterical” about modern woman’s sexually aggressivity), and the “Church” is as eager as ever to weigh in on women’s roles.††† Perhaps the biggest change is that as women have moved into every higher positions of authority they have become women’s most ardent critics. The war on women is no longer man’s alone, now women have taken up arms to restrict women’s freedoms, too.

*Kinder, Küche, and Kirche, “Children, Kitchen and Church,” a phrased widely and dismissively used to indicate the distaff realm.

**While one could argue that the phrase milkman’s tramp is simply referring to the sound the milkman makes walking up the stairs in the mid 1950s, the time of this poem, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald revitalized a hit song that had been repeatedly popular since the 1930s with their version of the “The Lady Is A Tramp.”

† The reader is allowed to assume the primary persona is the poet. Rich was married with child in 1955 when this poem was written.

†† By example, the common phrase indicating pregnancy: “She has a bun in the oven.”

††† See “The Danvers Statement” by The (Baptist) Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: Proclaiming God’s Glorious Design for Men & Women, or the Catholic Church’s annual denunciations of birth control, or the Taliban’s crimes against women for just a few of the many, many examples.


© Fred Dodsworth. September 26, 2010

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