The Wry Humor of Love
“Translations” by Adrienne Rich is a disconcerting vignette on love: the tightly knit poem encroaches on all romantic illusions. Rich dives into the “shallow” pools of a woman’s heart, protecting her head with galling metaphors, she discovers depths previously unknown. Describing our idealizations as feral and untamed, like “ivy to our walls,” and as encumbering as “lead on our ankles,” her bold similes and sharp comparisons transport us into a primal world. Ivy is thin like vanity; curls like a hairbrush can, like eyelashes should.
Beginning with the exterior of a woman’s clothed body, the ivy then dives deeper and sprays pink glitter on a once-natural heart. Recognizing that feminine delusions are enigmatic and in desperate need for translation, Rich dives in and guilelessly translates the depths of a cryptic illusion. Rich begins with recognizing certain cliches that prevail among women, “enemy, oven, (and) sorrow,” are often written and swooned over. The gluttony of women is not one of food, instead one of tragedies and menial sorrows, blown up and embraced as saviors from banality. Rich says “a woman of (her) time” can be identified by her “obsession” with love.
The word “obsessed” is alone on a line surrounded by two thick white spaces, and the lower case letters are trying to hide the scrounging word from the rest of the poem. I see the word naked, bending over, trying to cover its pale body. The word “love” then emerges out of the silent whiteness; its capitalization a sign of omnipotence. An unquestionable authority is granted to love, therefore, like a soft-spoken dictator, love disguises itself as being as natural and essential as “food.” We wallow in a sea of innocent vanity, moving closer to the cruel yet appealing lights of love.
As hearts tremble with lacey weddings dreams; they drown themselves in obsession, slam heads on concrete walls. The uninitiated gander forth, collecting sparkling “food” from “helicopters,” aching to be relived of this self-made, sacrificial starving, “our famine”. Love falls in clumps like wedding bouquets, jerks through a baby-blue sky, quivering arms reach up towards the flowers. The woman who thinks her hands are gripping the bouquet is soon disconcerted- the rose thorns dive into her hands as disillusionment slithers forth, a pariah with mal-intent. “I begin to see that woman,” Rich says, “doing things.” “Stirring rice/(and) ironing a skirt” distract the shattered woman.
The wry humor and tasks of love, the giggles and cooking, disguise it in a beautiful silken cloak. Noticing the plastic sheen on love’s flowers, the woman who leapt with glee as the bouquet came tumbling forth, is now forlorn and bitten. She is now “trying to make a call” to her lover, pretending she didn’t see the manufactured evidence of its falsity. An entire life learning to move in ways satisfying to the “ivy”, trying her best not to rip or injure the delicate illusion and, so simply, “the phone rings unanswered in a man’s bedroom.” The ringing, a helpless tune of wanting, symbolizes a woman’s voice as she gets older, devoid of the naive chirp of a girl’s.
The unanswered phone doesn’t rail against her; instead it injects a modest sorrow. When a woman attempts to perfect herself, spays perfume in order for love to be attracted to the sweet smell, defeat clumsily comes along the rocky path, and she is sacrificed naked and vulnerable, makeup leaking from etched-in wrinkles. Her defeat is met with a quiet knowing, for she knows that all women will eventually “light (their) own way to sorrow.” According to Rich, love is the “subject” of a woman’s life, and therefore the individual man is annihilated and ignored because of the glitter and appeal that love carries lightly, on a smooth, muscular back. Humanity and its qualities aren’t considered when fantasying about love, instead the Garden of Eden presents itself, its nature symmetrical and ideal: in other words, inhuman.
Custom tells us to “bake” love so it is golden like the hair of Prince Charming, like the color of the sun hitting the castle. The “bread” then weighs us down, and the love we nurtured curdles in our stomachs, rots to the beat of disillusionment. Rich paints the world as a cycle run by a “hostile power” which entrances the human spirit to desire what is not possible. Like the dog aching to be a person, we ache to be Greek gods, careless protagonists in glamorous tales. Our lethargy and typos aren’t factored into the Ambrosia-filled delusions. The “power” is “hostile” because it takes no prisoners- grabbing everyone by virgin throats; we are thrown into a pool seeming in rousing deceit.
Like the impersonality of war causalities, the idea of love is amassed for such great numbers that it becomes standardized and immortal. Rich introduces the reason behind the absurdity of our notions in her last stanza. “Grief is shared, unnecessary and political.” Love is transformed into an impotent hybrid, paralleling all different aspects of love, making them all too similar. The rapport is disingenuous, like many of its factions. The banality and commonness of love is not expressed in our illusions.
Rich finally asked us why we need love, and whether or not it is “necessary.” We never receive an answer, a silence clustered with never ending meanings, leads us to wonder if there is any definite answer. The nervous whiteness that surrounded “obsession” returns to haunt us, brooding above us like heavy canopies. Rich makes us wonder what love would entail without the contrivances. Would it still be love?