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An Atlas of the Difficult World

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1 review about An Atlas of the Difficult World

Adrienne Rich: Poetry That's Intimate and Immediate

  • Jul 9, 2010
Rating:
+5

I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
      hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
      between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are

-Adrienne Rich

 
This excerpt is from “Dedications,” in the collection An Atlas of the Difficult World.  This is the final part of the long title poem: “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” The line “I know you are reading this poem” opens the poem and is repeating throughout. With that single line, Rich establishes timelessness in the relationship between the poet and the lone reader of the poem, a poem whose immediacy and intimacy never expires. 

The second line here, “as you pace beside the stove warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand,” sketches the image of a father or mother. The word “hand” is separated, which provides a visual emphasis. The “hand” of the parent is a hand that gives and gives; a hand that also wants to create. If we were to interpret this as a woman, we would note the feminist declarations which Rich is well-known for. In the words, “because life is short and you too are thirsty,” she appeals to a woman’s desire to live a life that is rich with meaning and poetry, not merely caring for children. This line also evokes the so-called “thirsty child” in all of us—a being that needs nourishment in the form of art, play, and love.

The next section, “reading this poem which is not in your language,” could reference a non-native speaker, or a person who does not often read poetry, or even simply an “other” person—any reader. It is not in “your language” because it is in her language, Rich’s language. Whoever this reader is, he or she grasps at the meaning, trying to understand: “guessing at some words while others keep you reading.” That is to say: the words that you understand keep you reading. Rich then writes: “and I want to know which words they are.” This is a direct reference to her goal in appealing to the reader of the poem. She wants to understand what makes the poem universal and what makes it appeal to the reader.

The next lines also invoke the universality of the poem:

I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse

 
Rich appeals to the humanness of the reader, to the reasons why we are drawn to poetry. The reader is “listening for something, torn / between bitterness and hope.” This is a natural, human state: poised between the bitterness of past hurt, and the hope of the future. Breaking off at the word “torn” creates a rather visual tear to mimic the reader’s inner turmoil. And at last “turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse”—whether that task is your wounded child, your office work, or your bedclothes in “stagnant coils.”

The final lines of the poem, which conclude the whole collection, emphasize again this hope and bitterness:

I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are

 
Rich often addresses her Jewish heritage or the effects of the Holocaust in this particular work, as these lines may recall.  The idea of an individual being “stripped down” could mean someone is on the brink of death, or perhaps they have lost everything. The poetry brings hope. These lines could be meant for society, as well as the individual. The society is “stripped down” by a meaningless materialism, and in need of poetry, in need of clarity and kindness. In the end, Rich appeals to various individuals and the society as a whole, since she shows how each of us overlaps in distinct but similar situations. She unites her readers through the artifice of poetry, bringing them closer together and closer to her.

I am not someone who often reads poetry, but I find Rich's voice fresh and moving.
 

Rich, Adrienne.  An Atlas of the Difficult World. (New York: Norton & Company, 1991).

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