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Two Deep Breaths: Power

By Caitlin Dwyer

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism lately. Around work and school, a lot of us suffer from the compulsion to appear flawless.

And yet, who is perfect? The world is full of melancholy and fever, and the work we do often damages us, even as it compels and thrills us. There are no 100% marks in life, no simple answers to the difficult questions of how far to push or when to stop striving.

Adrienne Rich’s poem “Power” is about these questions, and a lot more. She describes an excavation that unearths an old “tonic / for living on this earth,” and we know immediately from the description that there is no such panacea. The world is difficult and demanding, and there’s no “perfect…hundred-year-old / cure.” We will have to learn to live with our wounds.

Rich finds an example of such wounding in the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, who discovered the element radium and died of radiation poisoning. Rich describes the illness Curie endured: cataracts, cracked skin. Her achievement made her “a famous woman,” conferring on her a kind of power.

This poem feels like a superhero story to me, but without a happy ending. A hero is irradiated, gaining special powers; but although she saves the world, she pays for it with her life. Rich is interested, I think, in the tension between wanting power, fame, that perfect ending – and the inevitable flip side, which is decay, change, and loss.

What I think is remarkable is how Rich invites and welcomes wounds. Instead of denying our hurts, as Curie did, Rich asks about the possibility of embracing what harms us, of even seeing it as necessary and formative. For a perfectionist, that kind of invitation is sweet indeed.




Living        in the earth-deposits        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


her wounds    came    from the same source as her power


Adrienne Rich was one of the 20th century’s most famous poets. She published many books, including Diving into the Wreck, which won the National Book Award. She was a queer feminist thinker, an intellectual, a poet, and an activist. She won a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, and a MacArthur grant, and was given the National Medal of Arts, which she refused to accept at the White House for political reasons.