Adrienne Rich’s “For The Record”

Adrienne_Rich,_Trumansburg,_New_York,_October_2001Award-winning poet Adrienne Rich passed away in 2012, but left behind a remarkable collection of poetry (25 books) and essays (7 books). Often political, almost always personal, Rich’s poems pose deep questions about femininity, power, and language. In 1997, Rich was awarded a National Medal of Arts and declined in protest of Newt Gingrich and the House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment of the Arts (it failed, thankfully) and the Clinton Administration’s anti-art and literature policies at the time (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was also on the block). Rich stated, “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

The trees didn’t volunteer to be cut into boards
or the thorns for tearing flesh

In her 1986 collection of poetry, Your Native Land, Your Life, Rich opens the book with “For the Record”, a poem that is both a setting-the-record-straight and an appeal to readers to find their own answers, to ask the right questions. This direct appeal to the reader, a powerful device, is not uncommon among poets who are concerned with social change and often appears at the beginning of a poetry book, or section of poems within a collection.

For the Record


The clouds and the stars did not wage this war
the brooks gave no information
if the mountains spewed stones of fire into the river
it was not taking sides
the raindrop faintly swaying under the leaf
had no political opinions

and if here or there a house
filled with backed-up raw sewage
or poisoned those who lived there
with slow fumes, over years
the houses were not at war
nor did the tinned-up buildings

intend to refuse shelter
to homeless old women and roaming children
they had no policy to keep them roaming
or dying, no, the cities were not the problem
the bridges were non-partisan
the freeways burned, but not with hatred

Even the miles of barbed-wire
stretched around crouching temporary huts
designed to keep the unwanted
at a safe distance, out of sight
even the boards that had to absorb
year upon year, so many human sounds

so many depths of vomit, tears
slow-soaking blood
had not offered themselves for this
The trees didn’t volunteer to be cut into boards
or the thorns for tearing flesh
Look around at all of it

and ask whose signature
is stamped on the orders, traced
in the corner of the building plans
Ask where the illiterate, big-bellied
women were, the drunks and crazies,
the ones you fear most of all: ask where you were.

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3 thoughts on “Adrienne Rich’s “For The Record””

  1. 1) “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” – powerful

    2) The deductive movement from nature to man-made objects to man-made social issues to man kind left me feeling like the center of the universe for all the wrong reasons.

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