A Brief Analysis of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Amends’

Adrienne Rich lived between 1929 and 2012. She was an American poet, dramatist and essayist. Her works are noted for their purely human themes like politics and identity. The major characteristics of Rich’s poetic style are the use of free verse and ordinary everyday language. ‘Amends’ is organised in four stanzas. Each stanza has four lines of varying lengths. Thus, the poem is written in quatrains. The poem has neither a rhyme scheme nor meter. Hence, it is written in free verse, which is characteristic of Rich’s poems. ‘Amends’ also uses run-on-lines or enjambment. This means that an idea in one line flows (‘runs’) into another line. Rich’s use of enjambment in ‘Amends’ is peculiar because ideas do not only flow from one line to another, they also flow from one stanza to another. In fact, the poem can be read as a single sentence which runs from the first stanza to the last.

What is the subject matter of the poem? What is the poem all about? The subject matter of ‘Amends’ is the moon. In fact, ‘Amends’ can be read as an ode to the moon. In the poem, the persona reports on the various human qualities observed in the moon. This means that the moon is personified throughout the poem.

The first stanza of the poem reads: ‘Nights like this: on the cold apple-bough/a white star, then another/exploding out of the bark:/on the ground, moonlight picking at small stones’.

This stanza begins by noting the temporal setting of the poem, which is in the night. It also accounts for the spatial setting of the poem, which is seen or depicted to be pastoral. The persona describes the moon in metaphorical terms by referring to it as ‘a white star’. This epithet contrasts sharply with the night’s dark hue. This gives the moon its first noted poetic quality, which is that of illuminating the night. The moon is that which brings light to the dark world. The word ‘cold’ as used in the first line of the first stanza speaks of lifelessness, which describes the pre-moon night. Readers should pay attention to the dramatic entrance made by the moon, which is described in onomatopoeic terms: ‘exploding out of the bark’. The first task of the moon after its glorious appearance is ‘picking at small stones’. By this, it is implied that the moon’s beam is so powerful that it illuminates small stones.

From the first stanza, it can be seen that ‘Amends’ thrives on kinesthetic, tactile, visual and auditory imagery, among others. Visual imagery can be seen in words like ‘nights’, ‘apple-bough’, ‘white star’, ‘bark’, ‘ground’, ‘moonlight’ and ‘stones’. The word ‘cold’ conveys tactile imagery while the expression ‘exploding’ exemplifies auditory imagery. Kinesthetic imagery is seen in terms of how the moon ‘explodes out of the bark’ and how it ‘picks at’ objects as it moves from place to place throughout the poem.

The second stanza of the poem reads: ‘as it picks at greater stones as it rises with the surf/laying its cheek for moments on the sand/as it licks the broken ledge, as it flows up the cliffs,/as it flicks across the tracks.’

In this stanza, it is noticed that the idea expressed is a continuation of the first stanza. In fact, the stanza would amount to a fragment if it is not read as a continuation from the first stanza. It is equally noticed how the moon graduates from illuminating ‘small stones’ to shining on ‘greater stones’. This suggests the idea that nothing misses the sharp optical lenses of the moon. One characteristic of the moon that must be stated at this point is its malleability; its ability to change its shape, personality and action to fit the object that it comes in contact with. This is noted throughout the poem. For instance, the moon ‘rises with the surf’ illustrates how the moon reshapes itself having moved from the land to the sea, ‘surf’.

The moon also stops to enjoy the sands of the beach by ‘laying its cheek’ on it. The personification of the moon is powerfully felt in this stanza. ‘Licking’ is a human act, but it also constitutes alliteration when read alongside ‘ledge’ in the third line. The word ‘ledge’ is a register drawn from shipbuilding, which environmentally collocates with the depiction of the sea area in the stanza. There is a conscious use of consonance in the second stanza with some, if not most, of the words ending in voiceless and voiced sibilants: ‘stones’, ‘rises’, ‘moments’, ‘licks’, ‘flows’, ‘cliffs’, ‘flicks’ and ‘tracks’. These words reinforce the kinesthetic qualities of the moon as well as its silent actions. Just as the second stanza is about to end, the moon moves up the cliffs and on to the tracks which suggest a railroad. The implication of all this is that the moon is not limited in spatial terms. It has the ability to go anywhere it chooses.

The third stanza of the poem reads: ‘as it unavailing pours into gash/of the sand-and-gravel quarry/as it leans across the hangared fuselage/of the crop dusting plane’.

In this stanza, it is noted that the parallel structure (‘as it’) that began in the second stanza is still being sustained in the third stanza. In fact, this particular instance of parallelism is sustained throughout the poem. This structure allows the reader to appreciate the activities of the moon in real time; that is, as they happen and as witnessed by the observant persona.

The word ‘pours’ has a hyperbolic quality, but it is deployed in relation to the word ‘gash’ which, within the poem’s context, means a deep hole on the earth. Thus, the moon is described as filling a hole on the ground with its illuminating light. The word ‘unavailing’ illustrates the futility of this action by the moon. The word ‘gash’ also prepares the reader to appreciate the new environment that the moon has found itself, which is revealed in the second line to be a ‘sand-and-gravel quarry’. Perhaps the moon is chiding humans for disturbing the earth and at the same time trying to fill up the hole that they have dug as part of making ‘amends’. Note that in the first stanza the moon made amends by, among other things, bringing light to a dark world. In the second stanza, it ‘licks the broken ledge’ in a ship in another fruitless attempt to repair it, among other human acts.

It is seen in the third stanza that it is not only the earth that human beings have exploited, they have also mechanised the agricultural system as can be seen in the use of planes in tending the crops. The expression ‘hangared fuselage’ is used to represent this aspect of mechanised farming. Is the moon to make amends for this? What I read into the third line is the moon’s helplessness because it just ‘leans’ on the aeroplane parts, as if it is tired after so much movement and work.

The final stanza of Rich’s ‘Amends’ reads: ‘as it soaks through cracks into trailers/tremulous with sleep/as it dwells upon the eyelids of sleepers /as if to make amends’.

The moon’s ability to penetrate any space, no matter how small, is dramatised in this stanza. In the word ‘soak’, the moon is given the attribute of water which helps it to pass through cracks and trailers. The moon is also depicted as that which induces sleep in people. This is also part of making amends as the moon helps people to sleep after a hard day’s work.


How does Rich make the moon such an interesting phenomenon in the poem?

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