More than 20 years ago I started a relationship with a poem called “Power” by Adrienne Rich. I describe it this way because of how many times its meaning has perplexed me, evolved, shown itself to me in momentary illuminations that slip away as quickly as they arrive, and reflected who and where I am at different points in my life. The poem begins with a meditation on what’s buried in the earth and uncovered, then recounts a rather famous story about Marie Curie, a Polish/French chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity in a time when there were very few female scientists. In other words, its premise is deceptively simple as far as poems go. A fact that further baffles me over the way I’m at times blind to its meaning despite its apparent translucency and straightforward communication. It’s the ending that does this to me, again and again and again. Here it is in entirety:
Living in the earth-depositis of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
The last stanza is what I’ve grappled with for as long as I’ve known of this poem. If we’re to read this poem in all its literal content about Marie Curie and the way her research actually poisoned her body, the ending cannot be understood in the same context as the rest of the poem. We understand the first part of the last stanza, that Marie Curie was famous, and died from her wounds, but that she also denied that she was wounded by the very thing she researched for so long. This seems easy enough to follow along with given the context of the rest of the poem. But then we’re told again, that she denied “her wounds came from the same source as her power.” And it’s this revelation that blows the lid off the literal interpretation of this poem. How can a wound come from the same place as power? If we’re powerful, isn’t that very declaration at odds with the notion of being wounded? What Rich has done is highlight one of those contradictory energies that we’re prone to assuming cannot coexist. Surely if someone is powerful, they’re not wounded. Conversely, if someone is wounded, then that would mean they’re not powerful.
And yet, what Rich honed in on the many decades ago that she wrote this poem is something that, if we really pause to think about it, reveals that the two energies of being powerful and wounded are inextricably tied together. The more I think about my own life, and what ways I consider my own self powerful, it becomes nearly impossible to see any of that strength or power as being able to exist unless I had been wounded in that very spot at some point in my life. Being open to this painful observation in turn produces even more power by summoning a sense of understanding over the paths I’ve travelled in life. This seems to be the very heart of why this poem’s meaning eludes me at various times.
Sometimes I’m deep within the wound, unable to see its connection to my own power, or how it can transform into anything full of light. And sometimes I’m only within my power, pulsing with all its radiance so that I forget the darkness that it started out as.
Cheryl Strayed used this poem and those very last lines to illustrate her own wrestling with wounds and power in her memoir/movie Wild. I loved this book, and remember that at the time I was reading it, I was in yet another space where the last line of Rich’s poem was unknowable to me. I remember I even had trouble connecting it to the place that Strayed was in along her own point of reckoning. I couldn’t see how her wounds and power were connected, or that of her mother’s. I’m fascinated at the way I can so clearly know this line and find it impenetrable.
Rich hit upon a universal truth so elemental that it goes to the very heart of our nature as humans. By examining our own darkness, we find a light that transmutes to a self-guiding power. To avoid the darkness or wounds of our actions or behaviors or thoughts, is to cut at the very source of our power. And this relationship can work in the inverse way as well: our power can cause a wound. We can be vulnerable in that very place we are strong because the body remembers what seeded the strength to begin with, and maintains a proclivity that for that same pathway. This poem has enriched my life in countless ways over the years, and I cannot imagine living without it. And I suspect that I’ll never be done reflecting on its meaning since its close to the very marrow of what it is to be alive.