Study Guide

Power Suffering

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 theme of suffering doesn't just begin with Marie. These early lines of the poem introduce a faux-suffering aid: the tonic (which was probably not at all helpful). There's just no such thing as a magic little bottle of amber liquid to cure everything from fever to melancholy to "living on this earth." We all live, we all suffer, bro, and no amber liquid's gonna change that.

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)

Now the poem gets really specific about Marie. Her discovery kills her, and before it does that, it wreaks havoc on her body. Rich creates some real grotesque—but totally true-to-life—images of the ailing Madame Curie. We can't help but picture her pus-filled and cracking fingers, unable to work any longer. Our hearts are breaking for our sick Marie.

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

Sure, Marie died a "famous woman," but was her suffering and her death worth it? How much sacrifice is too much sacrifice? It seems to us like Marie herself understood that her discoveries were bigger than herself, but we kinda sorta think that Rich might not totally agree. Rich doesn't seem concerned with the big picture; she's concerned with Curie herself. What do you think?