What is this Adrienne Rich poem about?
April 11, 2014 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Adrienne Rich's poem OCTOBRISH from fox is one that I am fascinated by. But what is it about?

I wonder if it's about divorce? Poetry analysis is not my strong suit but I do love the poem. I'd love some insight.


—it is to have these dreams

still married/where
you tell me In those days
instead of working
I was playing on the shore with a wolf

coming to a changed
glad of the changes

but still almost
and bound to disappear

A life thrashes/half unlived/its passions
don’t desist/displaced from their own habitat
like other life-forms take up other dwellings

so in my body’s head
so in the stormy spaces
that life
leads itself which could not be led

posted by morganannie to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It is likely that the title refers to her husband's suicide in October 1970.

From Wikipedia:

In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University, whom she had met as an undergraduate. She had said of the match: "I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family ... I wanted what I saw as a full woman's life, whatever was possible."
Increasingly militant, Rich hosted anti-war and Black Panther fundraising parties at their apartment; tensions began to split the marriage, Conrad fearing that his wife had lost her mind. The couple separated in mid-1970 and shortly afterward, in October, Conrad drove into the woods and shot himself.

posted by cincinnatus c at 7:53 AM on April 11, 2014

Best answer: I don't know a ton about Rich, but one thing is that she came out in the seventies after her first marriage I believe. In that light, I would interpret this piece as a portrayal of a marriage on a precipice, but it's also about living a dual life as a closeted (or bi? I'm not really sure how she identified) woman.

This stanza especially makes some sense given that context:

A life thrashes/half unlived/its passions
don’t desist/displaced from their own habitat
like other life-forms take up other dwellings

She introduces the poem as a dream, the dream of an unhappy marriage where her husband is "transparent/ bound to disappear" (meaning he's halfway out the door). She, meanwhile, is living a life "half unlived" (ie suppressing her natural orientation).

The poem ends by comparing a dream of a life "which could not be led" entering her unconscious self much like an animal moves from one habitat to another dwelling once displaced. Like a hermit crab.

Thinking back to what I know of her, she is really effective in her use of animal/wild imagery, the way a woman can be both a human and a wolf, or the way we inhabit stormy spaces.

Like always, I could be totally wrong about this. The thing that's hard about poetry is accepting that your interpretation could be totally wrong yet valid at the same time. It's a hurdle to get over, but once you do, you become much less hesitant to engage with a text that you don't immediately understand.
posted by Think_Long at 7:54 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: what I read: even when you choose one path in life (like traditional marriage), those other wild dissonant parts of you, passions & possibilities you had to sacrifice/give up are never entirely laid to rest -- they take up residence somewhere else inside you (like in fantasy), unchosen & unlived but always thrashing somehow, impossible to forget.
posted by changeling at 8:25 AM on April 11, 2014

Best answer: I would combine the information in the above two comments to say this.

Rich's ex-husband shot himself in October. She turns "October" into an adjective, "Octobrish," to describe a feeling, a mood, a state of mind. To be"Octobrish" is to have dreams in which she and her husband are still married. Her husband (alive in the dream) describes a time in the past that was, in reality, rocky and difficult (maybe the time when she herself was coming to terms with her sexuality) by saying that while she thought he was going to work, doing ordinary things, he was in fact living playfully and wildly, and also keeping secrets from her - "playing on the shore with a wolf." He comes home to a changed house (the house is changed because Rich is changing) and yet is glad of the changes...in contrast to, presumably, the reality of the situation, when Rich's coming-out caused her husband harm. However, even in the dream, which offers a happier, richer version of the end of their marriage, the husband can't escape his fate- he fades in front of her eyes, "transparent and bound to disappear."

In the fifth stanza, Rich interprets the dream. "A life thrashes/half unlived" has, I think,a dual meaning - it's not just that, as think_long says, if Rich had stayed in the closet,her life would have been "unlived," although that's part of it. It's also that, by leaving, she displaced her love/passion for her husband, which was also real, and that love had to find somewhere else to go. And so, she follows a kind of alternate timeline in her dreams, imagining what life might have been like if she'd stayed with her husband, even though she knows that would have been impossible. That love has its own agency - "the life leads itself which could not be led."
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:25 AM on April 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It certainly seems like a poem with imagery inspired by her husband's death, maybe with a layer of "what would it be like if the separation and suicide hadn't happened" running through it. I haven't re-read Rich in many years, but I feel like I remember a number of poems in her books from the 70s that alluded (emotionally and often elliptically) to the suicide. (It's hard to imagine that the event didn't haunt her for the rest of her life.)
posted by aught at 8:32 AM on April 11, 2014

Best answer: even though she knows that would have been impossible

Actually, I think she knows that it would have been very much possible, even if it would have constituted a kind of emotional death, or half-death, for herself, and that a lot of more intimidated or less-empowered women have chosen that half-death rather than risk exploring their own suppressed wants and needs.
posted by aught at 8:36 AM on April 11, 2014

Best answer: [Wikipedia] tensions began to split the marriage, Conrad fearing that his wife had lost her mind

Last comment: the Wikipedia article is not terribly objective about this incident. Let me only say that I suspect a lot of people who have been left by their spouse or significant other express this sentiment in exasperation at no longer being loved by someone they still love.

Still, this paraphrase (I think it's actually taken from comments made by poet Hayden Carruth, a friend of both Rich and her husband, who lived near their Vermont house and in fact was the one to identify the body) is often used to pretty harshly pin blame for Conrad's death on Rich's supposed selfishness and focus on radical politics instead of the marriage. The full quote from Carruth talks about Conrad's long-term psychotherapy and career disappointment as contributing factors to the suicide, which those who dislike Rich and her politics tend not to include when they quote him. (Longer quote is in this Guardian obituary of Rich, way down toward the bottom.)
posted by aught at 8:49 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You all get best answers.

Thanks! It's a great poem and the new insight makes it even more meaningful.
posted by morganannie at 6:04 AM on April 14, 2014

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