The Young Insurgent's Commonplace-Book: Adrienne Rich's "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law"

Written by

Marilyn Hacker
Contributor Page

Year

2012

I wish I could remember when I first read "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law." It could have been in 1963, when the eponymous book appeared, but if it had, it would have been a revelation (which I did not have for some years) that other women poets were grappling with the issues I was at twenty, that there might be dialogue and exchange, if not in conversations and letters, in the way a poem in a book calls another poet back to notebook and pen. Like Rich herself at twenty, my literary dialogues on and off the page were largely with men: on one hand, Auden, Lowell, Berryman, on the other, the acolytes of the "San Francisco Renaissance" talking of and reading the work of Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to their East Coast juniors. I read Ariel in 1963, and like other women poets of my generation, I can hear Plathy echoes in poems I wrote subsequently. Rich and Plath (and Anne Sexton) had in common a strong background in and gift for metrical verse and "received forms" upon which they built, elaborated, expanded: in both cases their mature work seems to me much more of an "extension" of this initial achievement than, say, James Wright's abrupt move from metrical toward open forms at roughly the same time. But Rich's work, from at least her third book on, was and is dialogic, a pole away from Plath's insistent interiority. To read a woman poet using and subverting the modernists' collage/quotation/fragmentation techniques—so often employed in mockery of women—in a project of specifically womanly and mordantly feminist inquiry was a heady pleasure. Not to have read this poem at twenty, entered the dialogue then, is a persistent regret, although it was compensated by later discovery.

"Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" was Adrienne Rich's first overtly feminist poem. One might say that the earlier "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" and "Living in Sin" were covertly feminist, but in "Snapshots," Rich not only considered the question of women's aspirations and achievement directly, she placed it within defining social and cultural contexts which would be equally characteristic of her ongoing poetic/political project (though they would grow increasingly less Eurocentric, less focused on the Enlightenment). "Snapshots" is also the first of Rich's equally ongoing series of poetic sequences: nonlinear multipart poems becoming verbal holograms of the subject matter the poet discovered within them as they developed, from "Leaflets" through "Twenty-One Love Poems" to "Contradictions: Tracking Poems" and "An Atlas of the Difficult World," continuing as a central presence in each new collection up through "Tendrils" in The School Among the Ruins.

Though "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" marks the young poet's break with the more deliberately groomed metrical verse of her first two books, it is nonetheless informed and, I would say, strengthened by a shadow presence of the sonnet sequence in the shape and structure of many of the sections, in the way many of the strongest lines swell or retract to the pentameter, but also, and especially, by an aptness for nonlinear progression, for intellectual jump-cutting, for building an argument and a narrative with a cinematic accretion of images, personae, and ideas made coherent by the numbered breaks in the poem, rather than a linear or narrative stanzaic progression. The line counts of the ten sections are: 13, 12, 14, 10, 3, 16, 7, 9, 21, 14, not at all close to sonnet length and none precisely sonnet-shaped. Several demonstrate a distinct volta, the lines following which change direction, sometimes surprisingly, and respond to or comment on the section's opening. Each section is self-contained, and yet each reflects on all the others; the order seems gratuitous but is, rather, inexorable. There are numerous memorable lines, even epigrammatic couplets:

a woman partly brave and partly good
who fought with what she partly understood.
she's long about her coming, who must be
more merciless to herself than history.

This is a poem, a poet, not afraid of wit, of satire, but the target is most often and surprisingly those with whom the speaker is most identified: ma semblable, ma soeur. Nonetheless, its critical reception was virulent enough to discourage the poet from dealing directly with feminist themes, even while her poetry became more immediate in political engagement, for nearly a decade. "A woman feeling the fullness of her powers / at the precise moment when she must not use them" Rich wrote in "I dream I'm the Death of Orpheus" in 1968.

"It strikes me now as too literary, too dependent on allusion. I hadn't found the courage yet to do without authorities, or even to use the pronoun 'I'—the woman in the poem is always 'she,'" Rich wrote of "Snapshots" in the essay "When We Dead Awaken," some eleven years later. But upon reading the sequence it would be difficult to peg any one of the sections with an autobiographical "I," when indeterminacy—the simultaneous possibility of the "shes" all being one, and of their being different—is part of its power.

Banging the coffee-pot into the sink
she hears the angels chiding, and looks out
past the raked garden to the sloppy sky.
Only a week since They said: Have no patience..

This might be the "nervy, glowering" daughter (not, in fact, a daughter-in-law) of the previous section, yet the description is nearly congruent with:

Reading while waiting
for the iron to heat
writing My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun
In that Amherst pantry where the jellies boil
   and scum,"

which is, of course, a depiction of Dickinson (encapsulating her line into a narrative pentameter!). There is an "I" in the poem: it is the narrator's voice possessed of and providing all those allusions, angry, disabused, exigent, only hopeful, and not entirely convincingly so, at the conclusion.

The "you," an older woman whose mind is "moldering like wedding-cake" addressed in the opening section, is not the mother-in-law of a daughter-in-law but the mother of an impatient daughter. In many patrilocal cultures, the role of daughter-in-law is, across social classes, difficult and arduous: a young woman leaves her family home to be installed as dogsbody and scapegoat to her husband's extended family, often, in particular, to her mother-in-law, escaped by virtue of having borne and married off a son from the same thankless position: rarely are examples given of mothers-in-law who in empathy refuse to put their daughters-in-law through the trials they themselves suffered. Rich might not (yet) have been thinking of Indian or Indonesian daughters-in-law as she composed the poem (the only "mother-in-law" specifically mentioned is "Nature," from whom, the poem posits, a woman paradoxically stands at far greater remove than "her sons," like Aphrodite in the myth of Eros and Psyche), but the enforced generational or sisterly enmity between (powerless) women is much more focal to the poem than any relationship with men, who are largely present as sources of misogynistic quotations and damning faint praise. The only direct human confrontation in the poem is in the (fourteen-line) third section's second septet—although it is putatively verbal, it is almost erotic:

Two handsome women gripped in argument
each proud, acute, subtle, I hear scream
across the cut glass and majolica—
like Furies cornered from their prey:
The arguments ad feminam, all the old knives
that have rusted in my back, I drive into yours
ma semblabe, ma soeur!

—terminating with the transformed last line of Baudelaire's poem "Au Lecteur" from the book he first wished (coincidentally) to call Lesbiennes.

"Snapshots" is a commonplace book of quotations and allusions, some in English, some in French or Latin; some complete lines or sentences, some fragmented: Cortot, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Horace, Campion, Mary Wollestonecraft, Diderot, Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare...Surely the line "Time's precious chronic invalid" is meant to suggest Alfred de Vigny's "La femme, enfant malade et douze fois impur." The helicopter image in the last stanza is borrowed from Simone de Beauvoir's Le Deuxième sexe, and seems to show both Rich and de Beauvoir at a loss to imagine an actual woman freed from the constraints they chronicle. Rich stated, again in "When We Dead Awaken," that "The poem was jotted in fragments during children's naps, brief hours in a library, or at 3AM after rising with a wakeful child. I despaired of doing any continuous work at this time. Yet I began to feel that my fragments and scraps had a common consciousness and a common theme, one which I would have been unwilling to put on paper at an earlier time because I had been taught that poetry should be 'universal,' which meant of course nonfemale."

Rich's awakening to a feminist (and, eventually, socialist) consciousness has been described by the poet herself in prose and in poems, but here I think she was also describing her discovery of a method of composition which has itself become a leitmotif in many later poems: the joining of "fragments and scraps," whether quotations or described pieces of fabric, bits of pottery dug up on an archaeological site, a yard-sale table spread with salvaged objects—often counterbalanced, as the web of quotations first was here, with an image of speed and distance: the car, the plane, the boat, the helicopter.

It was, when I first discovered this sequence, not only its tentative feminism, but its polyglot, unsparing wit marshaled in the cause of that feminism, even at its outset a difficult and demanding feminism, from a poet and public intellectual who has continued to be "more merciless to herself than history," never abandoning inquiry, erudition, or humor in that scrutiny, that made me remember and keep rereading it. It retains its immediacy and relevance almost fifty years later, as a signal instance of the power of wit in poetry, as a major poet's entry into and instant, germinal subversion of the modernist canon.