The theme that interested me most in the poems by Adrienne Rich was the inadequacy of language as a means of communication. Rich shows that the reason for this lies in the way language expresses power relationships in society. Often this means the unequal relationship between women and men, but also between the powerful and the powerless. This theme is touched upon in almost every poem we studied, from Rich’s early poems to those written later. To illustrate how Rich explores this theme I will look in detail at “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room”, “Our Whole Life”.
In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, Rich creates a fantastic image of the aunt’s nonverbal communication through her tapestry. The poem opens with a vivid picture of the colourful, energetic alive world depicted on the tapestry. The aunt infuses the world of the tigers with many of the attributes she misses in her own life: a sense of being truly alive and in tune with the environment, and a state of fearlessness: “They do not fear the men beneath the tree/ They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.” The ee- sound in these lines introduces a note of terror that heralds what is to come. Indeed the phrasing suggests a reason for fear from men. The feelings that the aunt is projecting into her artwork, her own fears and desires are developed in the middle stanza. Her shaking, fearful hands “fingers fluttering” are very vivid and the fact that they find the “needle hard to pull” suggests physical weakness and contrasts very much with the tigers.
The reason for this weakness is “Uncle’s wedding band/ Sits heavily” on her “hand”. The possessive “Uncle’s” suggests that this is a one-way marriage that drains all life out of the aunt. Her hands come to represent her person in this poem and it is the hands that do the ‘talking’. The Uncle’s power over her seems to continue in death “When Aunt is dead, her...