A Woman Dead In Her Forties

Rich, Adrienne

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: May-17-2006


A Woman Dead In Her Forties is divided into eight sections, each consisting of between 5 and 10 stanzas, which vary in length from 1 to 4 lines. The poem explores bereavement due to breast cancer (perhaps of one woman, perhaps of many--and perhaps there is no difference); it also interrogates the privacies of loss. One of the tensions in the poem is between what is said and what cannot be said, both for those who are ill and those who are not, those who have died and those left behind. This is expressed in the half-conversations and snippets of memory in the narrative, as well as in the form of the poem itself with its pauses, staccato jumps, and prolonged caesuras.


Rich is known as a deeply committed political poet, and the anger expressed about "your unfair, unfashionable, unforgivable / woman’s death" is palpable in this poem. She makes use of military metaphors and religious ones; but there is a sense of trying to combine these various languages and approaches, and trying to combine the anger and the sorrow, into one poetic approach, as though poetry itself might be "more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening," the only response to this loss.

And yet this poem also shows how loss, absence, imprints itself into the poetry itself, as imperfect elegy tinged with the poet’s own regrets. The opening line makes use of the poet’s slash, the normally unseen convention of the line-break, as something violent and unreadable and implicitly involved: "Your breasts / sliced-off The scars." There are boundaries to sensibility and expression, and sometimes it is only those boundaries that can be discussed: despite intimacy and love and passion, there will remain that which can be shared and that which can only be acknowledged in ’mute loyalty.’


The poem is dated 1974-1977. The Dream of a Common Language was originally published in 1978.

Primary Source

The Dream of a Common Language, Poems 1974-1977


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York


1993 (paperback reissue)