Study Guide

Power Power

By Adrienne Rich


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 (3-5)

The first image of power in the poem actually doesn't involve Marie Curie; it's this little bottle of amber that's been unearthed. But this bottle only contains a not-powerful tonic—the type of old-timey medicine that promised a lot but couldn't deliver. We begin the poem with the opposite of power.

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 pencil (6-13)

In this meaty stanza, we get the truth about Marie. Sure, she discovered radium by "purifying" it, but it wreaked havoc on her body. The power she gained over the natural world through her research clashed with the destructive power in radium, the element she discovered. In the clash of Curie vs. radium, who do you think wins? She harnessed the power, sure, but it did kill her in the end.

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power (14-17)

In these final, heartbreaking lines, we learn that Curie always denied that the radium had power over her. She refused to admit that the radium was killing her (even though the speaker tells us earlier that she suspects that Curie really knew what was going on). Is the poem arguing that denial is a position of strength that allowed Curie to continue with her work? Perhaps. Does it argue that Curie had to deny her sickness to the public to appear powerful, even when she knew the truth? Perhaps. Does it argue that Curie was stupid to let her work destroy her body? Perhaps. Power in "Power" is incredibly ambiguous.