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The Look: A Reading of 'The Lioness' by Adrienne Rich

What brings you to her place? Her hand? Her car? Her scent. Of course. We are animals. The poet’s “beast” is not a voracious, indiscriminate taker-of-things. In ‘Origins and History of Consciousness’, it is “our inner darkness”, and it is dumb, sleeping, “head on her paws”, in the corner. In the corner of the consciousness. Earlier in that poem, the speaker is “like a warm, amphibious animal / that has broken the net... clear now / of the … wardens of the mind.”(1)

Now, five poems on, after ‘Cartographies of Silence’, we have ‘The Lioness’. One can’t help feeling an echo from the last line of ‘Cartographies’ while moving towards the lioness: “…the truth breaks moist and green…” The first line is slow and deliberate. We pause at “scent” with its cadence and double consonantal ending and its possibilities. Scent is memory. The speaker is following the scent of “her beauty”. Another pause for the simplicity of this falling step. Then the spell working, the feet drawn to her PLACE, not HER place. So simple, but worth plotting to understand why it draws. And holds.

Then staccato. Inhospitable desert territory. Everything is sharp and stark, few and far between. The ‘s’ of scent infuses the lines. “The starry sky” stands alone. As does the lioness. Her pacing is the longest line in stanza one, stretching to the margin. The lioness looks and claims the eyes of the speaker. The look is truthful because that’s the nature of animal. What her eyes mirror are symbolic of fertility, natural cycles, danger and liberty. Her power is in her walk, in her haunches’ ability to run, but she has half-abnegated it, half-abdicated. So is she really truthful? Perhaps only in the look. Line 13 has two words and enjambs with 14 to indicate the restriction. It’s now “Three square yards” instead of “three yards square”. This might be cloth, cut to measure. This is her compass.

Whom does the speaker address? It could be herself, awkward within ‘the look’, usurped by the look. Doesn’t she see the cage? The lioness’s head is “proud, vulnerable”, as if the two were logically linked. Is pride essentially vulnerable? Though she looks, it's scent that tells the lioness what’s there, what she knows, what she owns: “her country, she [breathe] / knows they exist.”

The rhythm of walk, in starlight. Not sentimental, because of the stark simplicity and the other components of the scene. The look is returned. Possible hegemony is accepted. The self remains outside. The speaker enters the unencompassed space behind the globes of the eyes, and becomes the other. The word “pupil” is simple to use, but I looked up its etymology. The OED detailed the obvious derivation—“orphan”, “child”, but the entry at the Online Etymology Dictionary is worth reproducing:

Pupil (n.2)
"center of the eye," early 15c. (in English in Latin form from late 14c.), from Old French pupille (14c.), from Latin pupilla, originally "little girl-doll," diminutive of pupa "girl; doll" (see pupil (n.1)), so called from the tiny image one sees of oneself reflected in the eye of another. Greek used the same word, kore (literally "girl;" see Kore), to mean both "doll" and "pupil of the eye;" and compare obsolete baby "small image of oneself in another's pupil" (1590s), source of 17c. colloquial expression to look babies "stare lovingly into another's eyes."
“Self-knowledge can be obtained only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner part of a man, as we see our own image in another's eye.”
[Plato, "Alcibiades," I.133]

I’m not sure the “volcano veiled in rainbow” is a symbol of freedom. I think it might be a hot illusion, producing more than the bargain. Of course it’s a "pen" that measures the square, and is it the pen that delivers the last three lashes?

By Adrienne Rich

The scent of her beauty draws me to her place.
The desert stretches, edge from edge.
Rock. Silver grasses. Drinking-hole.
The starry sky.
The lioness pauses
in her back-and-forth pacing of three yards square
and looks at me. Her eyes
are truthful. They mirror rivers,
seacoasts, volcanoes, the warmth
of moon-bathed promontories.
Under her haunches’ golden hide
flows an innate, half-abnegated power.
Her walk
is bounded. Three square yards
encompass where she goes.

In country like this, I say, the problem is always
one of straying too far, not of staying
within bounds. There are caves,
high rocks, you don’t explore. Yet you know
they exist.
Her proud, vulnerable head
sniffs toward them. It is her country, she
knows they exist.

I come towards her in the starlight.
I look into her eyes
as one who loves can look.
entering the space behind her eyeballs,
leaving myself outside.
So, at last, through her pupils.
I see what she is seeing:
between her and the river’s flood,
the volcano veiled in rainbow,
a pen that measures three yards square.
Lashed bars.
The cage.
The penance.

(1) The Dream of a Common Language, New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., (1978) 1993.


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