Shattered Head


I love this poem called “Shattered Head” by Adrienne Rich. I didn’t understand all of it at first. It describes a person walking uphill in the heat of the day, and finding a skull, described as “a shattered head on the breast of a wooded hill.” The rest of the body has dispersed and is the source of new life, but rather than let that be the end of the matter, the last thoughts of the skull are revealed:

             And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
             Who did this to us?
 
It is a haunting poem with allusions to time, beauty, love, betrayal, revenge, and death. The  most poignant suggestion is that the person on the hill once believed that they were loved, but were betrayed with the lines “breast of a wooded hill” hinting that the person who was trusted had a wooden heart.

One fear that many people have when starting out on a relationship is whether the other person will love them back to the same degree that they love. No one wants to suffer from unrequited love, or be taken in by false love. 

This poem captures the sense of false love and betrayal beautifully.

Here is the whole poem:

Shattered Head

A life hauls itself uphill
through hoar-mist steaming
the sun’s tongue licking
leaf upon leaf into stricken liquid
When? When? cry the soothseekers
but time is a bloodshot eye
seeing its last of beauty its own
foreclosure
a bloodshot mind
finding itself unspeakable
What is the last thought?
Now I will let you know?
or, Now I know?
(porridge of skull-splinters, brain tissue
mouth and throat membrane, cranial fluid)

Shattered head on the breast
of a wooded hill
Laid down there endlessly so
tendrils soaked into matted compose
became a root
torqued over the faint springhead
groin whence illegible
matter leaches: worm-borings, spurts of silt
volumes of sporic changes
hair long blown into far follicles
blasted into a chosen place

Revenge on the head (genitals, breast, untouched)
revenge on the mouth
packed with its inarticulate confessions
revenge on the eyes
green-gray and restless
revenge on the big and searching lips
the tender tongue
revenge on the sensual, on the nose the
carrier of history
revenge on the life devoured
in another incineration

You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or woods
is humid
with beloved matter
the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace

And the shattered head answers back

And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
Who did this to us?

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