There Will Be Trembling – And, Thank God, The Poetry of Adrienne Rich

American Poet Adrienne Rich (1929 - 2012) Photo Credit: The Washington Post

American Poet Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012) Photo Credit: The Washington Post


There’ll be turbulence.    You’ll drop
your book to hold your
water bottle steady.     Your
mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall
may who ne’er hung there let him
watch the movie.     The plane’s
supposed to shudder, shoulder on
like this.    It’s built to do that.   You’re
designed to tremble too.    Else break
Higher you climb, trouble in mind
lungs labor, heights hurl vistas
Oxygen hangs ready
overhead.   In the event put on
the child’s mask first.   Breathe normally

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)  from Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, W.W. Norton, 2011

Oh how a poem can startle me back inside my byways and over grown pathways. Wake me up to places inside me I mean to keep hidden. That’s what a keeper poem does for me. That’s what American poet Adrienne Rich’s poem Turbulence did for me while I sat on the floor of  Bookends, in Kailua, O’Ahu, Hawai’i.

There I was tucked away in the front corner of the store, new books shelved with the secondhand ones and stacks of other used books waiting for shelf space on the floor beside me. Is it new or old I thought as I picked up Rich’s book Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. Neither exactly. It was a 2011 first edition priced as new. It was Rich’s last book of poems published in her lifetime and it had been nominated for the National Book Award. For a wonderful drawing of Rich and discussion of her remarkable writing life by on-line impresario Maria Popova of Brainpickings click here.

I opened the volume to Turbulence and read it. For the impact the poem had one me I might as well have felt the bookstore spin around me. Book and poem- induced turbulence! I was transported to a plane being bucked around in empty space by invisible air high above somewhere with my young son and daughter sitting beside me. I was white knuckled, holding on to my seat, they were wild-eyed with the joy of a free roller coaster ride. They were shocked at my fright. I was baffled by their delight.

As I sat in the bookstore I remembered telling my son just a month or so ago that since that incident of turbulence I have not been as frightened as I used to be in rough air. I don’t like it but I rest easier inside it. Something changed. Just as when I look back at terrifying moments of metaphorical, but no less real, turbulence in my life, I can see them with more equanimity.

There will be turbulence. What an opener. Wide open statement both figurative and literal. Then wham, the literal images of airline turbulence come at us interspersed with strange spacing and line breaks giving the poem its own turbulent cadence. But all along the poem is operating at two levels: literal turbulence in an airplane which becomes the metaphor for all those times of turbulence it our lives.  We can’t avoid it – in the air or not!

................. The plane’s
supposed to shudder, shoulder on
like this.    It’s built to do that.   You’re
designed to tremble too.    Else break


What a show stopper! The way Rich moves from the impact of turbulence on the plane (it’s supposed to shudderbuilt to do that) to the personal moments of turbulence in our lives (you’re designed to tremble too….Else break).

That’s when the poem spun me around, not quite like Dorothy in Kansas, but enough so that I landed back changed. More accepting of those difficult times in my life, embarrassing, shameful times. Times when I stood up too well for myself or not well enough. What self acceptance: you’re designed to tremble too….else break.

So yes, this is a so-called message poem derided at times by critics and poetry pundits such as Camille Paglia . But it’s more. I love how she manipulates her spacing and line breaks and  the way she brings celebrated 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins into the poem with reference to  cliffs of fall from his poem No Worst There Is None but also how she gives us echoes of his wonderful so-called sprung rhythm: higher you climb  trouble your mind/ lungs labour, heights hurl vistas.

After these verbal acrobatics what a switch Rich makes to end the poem in such a matter of fact way: In the event put on/ the child’s mask first….Breathe normally  and ends the poem without a period. What a great open ended way to say keep breathing. To say:  however much you tremble (you will tremble) do the required things, keep balance, and you will not break, even in the worst of turbulent times.

What a wonderful reminder for me as I sat on a book-cluttered floor reading a poem. Just a poem!  And at a time when my heart was experiencing its own turbulence knowing that my twenty seven year-old daughter Tella (the same daughter enjoying the turbulence many tears ago) was days away from sailing off in a sixty foot ketch across a turbulent ocean with no prospect of landfall for forty to fifty days.

Yes. There will be turbulence.

You’re/ designed to tremble too…..Else break.


  1. Mary Nelson
    Posted December 18, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Richard. I’m always enriched when i come back to your website. I say thanks for the number of insights you have provided me with over these past years. And now, you quote, put on the child’s mask first. Breath normally. As if one could in the eventuality of having to place an mask of life over a child’s face. Are we all in that position and don’t know it?Ah, Richard, you make me think. I thank you for it.
    Mary Nelson

  2. Richard
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mary!

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