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Adrienne Rich: Atlas of the Difficult World

  • Genre(s): Feminist, Gay/Lesbian, Contemporary
  • Period: 1950s to the present
  • Lines: (from "Eastern War Time: 9")
    Streets closed, emptied by force     Guns at corners
    with open mouths and eyes     Memory speaks:
    You cannot live on me alone
    You cannot live without me
    I'm nothing if I'm just a roll of film
    stills from a vanished world
  • Quote: Over the years it has seemed to me just that—the desire to be heard, to resound in another's soul—that is the impulse behind writing poems. Increasingly this has meant hearing and listening to others, taking into myself the language of experience different from my own—whether in written words, or the rush and ebb of broken but stubbon conversations. I have changed, my poems have changed, through this process, and it continues.
  • The title poem of Adrienne Rich's An Atlas of the Difficult World develops a voice at once level and jagged. Somnolent music couples with bitter, bizarre, and poignant images to represent americana at its disturbing best. Indeed, if this poetry does not disturb, it has not done its work.    Atlas of Difficult World[ Click to Order Rich's An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (soft $) ]

    And work, particularly women's work, is exactly where the title poem begins. The poem seems to ask, what does a woman do there in the margins of a country? And, furthermore, what consigns her to that space in the topography of our consciousness? Rich constructs a dialectic of patriarchy and underrecorded women's work. She places this dialectic in a cartography; as indicated by the title, the poem serves figuratively as a guide to untraversed terrain. The poem is an alternative atlas of the United States; each section of the poem, a regional map; each stanza, a block magnification; each line, a road leading in.

    However, the political boundaries of this atlas are not so rigid that the poet cannot step in and out of this formal structure to remind readers of the atlas' virtual composition and their role as map-readers:

    I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
    then yes let it be these are small distinctions
    where do we see it from is the question (pt. II, ll. 22-24).

    The atlas becomes more than a superficial guide; it is also a landscape painted with stories, histories, lives - to which readers respond from unique geographic locations of body and mind. The poet steps in again and challenges the reader to trace how the landscape changes while women's work endures: "These are not roads / you knew me by. But the woman driving, walking, watching / for life and death, is the same" (pt. I, ll. 77-79). Readers may associate the roads and the women they encounter with their own journeys; the poems are passages of the reader's design. Where do they lead?

    They carve through canonical history in thirteen distinct parts which consist of vignettes derived from women's lives. Rich catalogues these vignettes with an urgent tone, as if to commit them to the record before they fade from a nation's short-term memory. By acknowledging history in gynocentric detail, she questions women's exclusion from the master narrative of landscapes and events.

    Part I presents testimonies from women cognizant of economic disparities linked to gender and race. These testimonies record what women find important, what they fear, what hinders their action and bounds their agency, what silences them. This information unfolds in the shadow of a story of an anonymous women whose work kills her. She is a farm laborer in a toxic work environment: "Malathion in the throat, communion, / the hospital at the edge of the fields, / prematures slipping from unsafe wombs" (ll. 8-10). She communes with death; she dwells in the margin where economic oppression couples with environmental degradation and effects personal disaster. Survival becomes a grim paradox: the woman works to survive, yet she dies working.

    Also in Part I, Rich introduces the motif of a culture of denial. She writes, "I don't want to hear how he beat her . . ., / tore up her writing . . . / . . . I don't want to know / wreckage" (ll. 39-40, 48-49). She foregrounds a calculated, national cover-up of violence and atrocities that contradict the American ideal. Through this institutionalized denial, history - often in the form of banal, seemingly harmless media - erases herstory. The motif of denial and erasure recurs most strikingly when, in Part V, the poem grapples with the murder of a queer woman and ultimately resists erasure:

    I don't want to know how he tracked them
    along the Appalachian Trail, hid close
    by their tent, pitched as they thought in seclusion
    killing one woman, the other
    dragging herself into town his defense they had teased his loathing
    of what they were I don't want to know
    but this is not a bad dream of mine (ll. 45-51).

    Parts II and III evoke the American scene, the American balance of losses and excesses, and a context in which to integrate women's lives. Part IV mourns the talents that oppressed women never had the opportunity to develop, calls for "still unbegun work of repair" (l. 25), and characterizes women as prisoners: "locked away out of sight and hearing, out of mind, shunted aside / those needed to teach, advise, persuade, weigh arguments / those urgently needed for the work of perception" (ll. 19-21). Parts VI-VIII unravel the American dream, exploiting its mythology and proposing that what men dreamed, women did not receive. Rich conveys the irony of men thinking, "Slaves - you would not be that" (pt. VI, l. 14), while the realities of physical and psychological enslavement of races and women bear out their legacy.

    Parts IX-XI study the overwhelming loneliness fostered by a nation so large and fragmented. The speaker sees herself as "one woman / like and unlike so many, fooled as to her destiny, the scope of her task" (pt. XI, ll. 16-17) and contemplates the social divisions in a country where "power and powerlessness run amuck" (l. 24). The speaker also assumes the persona of an immigrant woman who finds in the United States only "Soledad.=f. Solitude, loneliness, homesickness; lonely retreat" (pt. X, l. 1).

    In XII, Rich seeks to restore women's value by reinstating their role in history. She catalogues details from the lives of Native American women and asks, "What homage will be paid to a beauty built to last / from inside out . . . / I didn't speak then / of your beauty at the wheel beside me . . . / - I speak of them now" (ll. 1-2, 9-10, 18).

    The final part of the poem suggests that now that poets are speaking to and on behalf of women, now that we are reinventing history, we must perceive these actions as moments on a continuum and that the partnership between the poet-historian and the silenced must endure. This final part dedicates the project to the many cultural dimensions of the silenced. Rich repeats "I know you are reading this poem" throughout the last part because the poem aspires to be nothing less than the unspoken, archetypal stories women know well. Rich concludes, "I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read / there where you have landed, stripped as you are" (ll. 36-37), thereby reiterating the capacity of literature to put women on the map.

    Guest Reviewer: Heather Fuller.



    Also by Adrienne Rich:

    Fact of Doorframe
    [ Click to Order Rich's The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (soft $) ]
        This thick book compiles Rich's poems (new and selected) from 1950 to 1984. These early poems are among Rich's best. Check out the long poem "Diving Into the Wreck," which includes the following stanza:

    I came to explore the wreck
    The words are purposes.
    The words are maps.
    I came to see the damage that was done
    and the treasures that prevail.
    I stroke the beam of my lamp
    slowly along the flank
    of something more permanent
    than fish or weed


    Click here for a review of Margaret Dickie's Stein, Bishop, & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, & Place



    Links of Interest:

    Clampitt & Rich as Public Historians
    A speech by Charles Vandersee (University of Virginia) titled "Clampitt and Rich as Public Historians in the 1990s," delivered at the Conference on Comtemporary Poetry in April 1997.




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