Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, part 5

Dulce ridens, dulce loquens,
she shaves her legs until they gleam
like petrified mammoth-tusk.

(Adrienne Rich, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," part 5)

*

A woman makes her legs "gleam" like ivory. This makes her beautiful, but the resulting beauty is "like petrified mammoth-tusk." The ivory this gleam is compared to comes from a mammoth (an extinct pachyderm) and is petrified (turned to stone by the passage of time). The gleam is uncanny in its lifelessness.

This tercet begins with a bit of Latin that is often translated as "sweetly laughing, sweetly speaking" and identified as a reference to Horace (Ode XXII, from the first book of the Odes). This makes the woman here more lively, vivacious and charming in her laughter and speech. If the words used to describe her are from a dead tongue, and a man's words, they still carry the magic and charm of beauty, for in the poem in question, Horace claims that a song he had written about his beloved kept a wolf from attacking him.

Yet even as the three lines celebrate the woman's beauty, they act out how the ideal of that beauty traps women in ancient patterns (represented here by Latin, the mammoth, and petrification). The woman in the middle line of the tercet is vividly present, but she is framed by terms that she has not defined for herself.

2 comments:

Joseph Hutchison said...

Are you doing us the favor of reading the whole poem this way? I love close readings—and this one is wonderful....

Andrew Shields said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Joseph. I've turned my attention to part 1 now, but I'm not sure when I'll be ready to post something.