Adrienne Rich’s Common Language


Stephan Page


Adrienne Rich has always been a sociopolitical (and without saying) talented poet.  Her poems and essays protest world injustices.  Her book, The Dream of a Common Language covers many issues and can be read on many different levels.   She rallies against patriarchal norms, she speaks out on feminist issues, she writes openly of lesbian love and eroticism, and she tries to explain that all people are equal in terms (the eyes) of humanity.  Rich, unlike many rebelliously outspoken people in the annals of history, not only points fingers at what is wrong, she attempts to offer a solution.


By the fifth poem of the collection Rich makes clear her view of a patriarchal world and what she categorizes as male befuddling of the planet:


in Chad, in Niger, in the Upper Volta

yes, that male god that acts on us and on our children,

that male State that acts on us and on our children

till our brains are blunted by malnutrition,

yet sharpened by the passion for survival,

our powers expended daily on the struggle

to hand a kind of life on to our children,

to change reality for our lovers

even in a single trembling drop of water.          


Of course she is speaking about masculine-trait anthropomorphisms of gods of most of the world’s surviving religions, and how governments use these as excuses for human suffering.         

‘The Floating Poem, Unnumbered’ from section II of the book, is an erotic introduction to lesbian love:


Whatever happens with us, your body

will haunt mine - tender, delicate

your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond

of the fiddlehead fern in forests

just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs

between which my whole face has come and come—

the innocence and wisdom of the places my tongue has found


the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth—

your touch on me, firm, protective, searching

me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers

reaching where I had been waiting years for you

in my rose-wet cave - whatever happens, this is.


Rich makes a statement simply in the form—the sonnet—but she does not use the classic sonnet form.  It is not fourteen lines and there are no end-rhymes.  By doing this, she not only contemporizes the form, she empowers herself, a woman, by disempowering the standard male-set form.


Rich most definitely wants everyone to be treated equally.   She notes that if someone suffers or dies, it is their race, gender, sexual orientation, and profession that decides the pathos the majority of the world feels for her.


They can rule the world while they can persuade us

our pain belongs in some order.

Is death by famine worse than death by suicide,

than a life of famine and suicide, if a black lesbian dies,

if a white prostitute dies, if a woman genius

starves herself to feed others,

self-hatred on her body?

Something that kills us or leaves us half-alive

Is raging under the name of an “act of god”


Simply by the title Rich chooses for the collection she is saying that the possibility of a common language, or a common understanding of humanity, is just that, a ‘dream,’ something fleeting, temporal, maybe even unattainable—at least in the current order of things.   She does, however offer first steps toward realizing the dream:


No one lives in this room

without confronting the whiteness of the wall

behind the poems . . .

Without contemplating last and late

the true nature of poetry.  The drive

to connect.  The dream of a common language.


The wonderful thing about reading an Adrienne Rich book is that one may interpret what one wants from the book.  Rich multilayers her poems and essays.  The Dream of a Common Language is no exception.  On one level, Rich is talking about anti-patriarchal feminist protest, not accepting the ‘language’ of the millennia-established male systems; on another level she is talking about the love between two women, ‘their’ language, and the homophobic state of the world; on yet another level she is talking about the need for everyone to accept everyone else, despite skin color, y-gene characteristics, sexual preference, vocation . . . we all are who we are, and we are all human.  We need to find a common language, a way to communicate with one another, a way to be on the same level.  For Rich, one way to obtain that, or at least begin to obtain it, is through poetry.