I felt more and more urgently the dynamic between
poetry and language and poetry as a kind of action,
probing, burning, stripping, placing itself in dialogue
with others out beyond the individual self
(Adrienne Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry
the title of Adrienne Rich's most recent volume of poetry An Atlas
of the Difficult World, is to begin to sense the scope of her
project in it. The book is a mapping, a tracing of 'difficulty,'
a dark trajectory from numb discontentment to full-blown outrage.
But Rich also seems to appoint herself the "Atlas," (a woman
'hera' rather than the classical male hero) who is up to the task
of holding up this troubled world. In order to accomplish this
mapping, Rich must take up the voices of the exploited, the abused,
the violated, the forgotten. She does not do this by assuming
their voices; she does not create personae that speak. Instead,
she speaks for them, ascertains their sufferings via her own consciousness
and imagination. The speaker in these poems is always considering
the lives of others, always contemplating their plights. She
moves in a large arc as if she can take up with the sufferings of
the many in her one grand poetic sweep. This task requires the
mastery tantamount to that of a classical hero, of an Atlas.
But it also requires acute sensitivity and particularity to move into
the lives of so many without misrepresenting or condescending to them.
the lens is not always turned outward for Rich. She also includes
herself; she includes the text of her own experience. Thus
the poems operate out of an overarching sense of inclusion.
Here she moves into a catalogue of different Americans; she
speaks about herself as she is fathoming what it means to love (my)
One citizen like and unlike so many, touched and untouched in passing
--each of us now a driven grain , a nucleus, a city in crisis
(An Atlas of the Difficult World 22).
is first her use of inclusive language and her liberal cataloguing
that suggestWhitman to the reader. In these Whitmanesque catalogues
that characterize Rich's long title poem, we see her reclaiming
not the naiveté of patriotism, but the problem of it.
By contrast, we see in Whitman the unabashed patriotism, the happy
inclusion, the sense that all is right with the world. He
writes at the end of part eleven of his thirteen part poem, "Salud
au Monde" :
Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!
Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless-- each of us with his or her right upon the
Each of us allow'd the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.
(Leaves of Grass 117).
how Rich advances as she goes further into part eleven of her thirteen
part title poem:
for whom war is new, others for whom it merely continues the old
paroxisms of time
some marching for peace who for twenty years did not march for justice
some for whom peace is a white man's word and a white man's privilege
some who have learned to handle and contemplate the shapes of
powerlessness and power
as the nurse learns hip and thigh and weight of the body he has
and sponge, day upon day
as she blows with her every skill on the spirit's embers still burning
their own laws in the bed of death.
A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for
the soul of
as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country
(gazing through the great circle at Window Rock into the sheen of
Viet Nam Wall)
as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a citizen trying
from the burnt-out dream of innocence
(An Atlas of the Difficult World 23).
cannot but suppose that Rich is in some way responding to the innocence
of Whitman. Here we see her taking up with some of his formal
strategies: parallelism, cataloguing, repetition, inclusion.
But rather than sound out her love of country and love of the other,
she attempts to reconcile her love of country with a deep disapproval
of its policies and ways. In this way, she both locates
herself in history and interacts aggressively with her inherited
part twelve of the same poem she refers to the burden of Keats as
influence. Within two spare lines she rejects his classical
balance from "Ode on a Grecian Urn", ("Beauty
is truth, truth beauty") by casting it ironically against resistance,
against the unacceptable female experience of beauty which for too
long has taken the form of objectification:
What homage will be
paid to beauty
that insists on speaking truth, knows the two are not always the
beauty that won't deny, is itself an eye, will not rest under
(An Atlas of the Difficult World 24).
is important to Rich that she find location in the world.
This reference to Keats, and her structural reference to Whitman
act to ground Rich in poetry from the past, show where these have
inspired her, and most importantly, show how they've failed
her. Here we discover the locus of one of her 'difficulties'
with the world: the patriarchal tradition in poetry that cannot
adequately speak for her experience.
1956, I had begun dating my poems by year. I did this because
I was finished with the idea of a poem as a single, encapsulated
event, a work of art complete in itself; I knew my life was changing,
my work was changing, and I needed to indicate to readers my sense
of being engaged in a long, continuing process. It seems
to me now that this was an oblique political statement-- a rejection
of the dominant critical idea that the poem's text should
be read as separate from the poet's everyday life in the world.
It was a declaration that placed poetry in a historical continuity,
not above or outside history.
( Blood, Bread and Poetry 180).
notion of the act of writing poetry as part of a long continual
project seems to infuse the poems with a life beyond poetic life,
with the life also of the poet. But what of poems that are
located so decisively in particular events? In one of her
longer poems, 'Eastern War Time', she mentions one historical event:
What the grown-ups can't speak of would you push
onto children? and the deadweight of Leo Frank
thirty years lynched hangs heavy
(An Atlas of the Difficult World 38).
of the allusions that Rich makes throughout the book have a kind of
universal accessibility for a liberal American readership: the Civil
Rights movement of the 1960's, the plight of the Jews under Nazi Europe,
the plight of American Jews during periods of rampant or insidious
anti- Semitism, the plight of the migrant worker, the plight of women
struggling for a voice. Her allusions to Whitman and to Keats
suggest a literary readership, a readership well-grounded in the reading
of poetry. But the allusion to Leo Max's lynching presents
a difficulty for the reader. It would not be impertinent to
ask: Who is Leo Max? What lynching is this? Since
we do not know who he is and have merely the context of the poem to
work with, the only significant signal that can rise to the surface
is the metaphor of lynching. Associations must prevail.
Readers will recall the southern lynchings of blacks, the castrations
and mutilations, and readers will most likely be moved to horror and
moral indignation at the mention of a lynching. Lynching
suggests violence and injustice. But however potent the metaphor,
the poem itself seems flimsy without the particular data to support
it. Why mention the Leo Max here? Why not create
the universal: a Leo Max type?
the reader, this constitutes an irritant, a disappointment, until
one turns to the back of the book to notice that Rich has provided
a 'Notes' section to supplement and illuminate the poems.
It is here that we read:
with the murder of a fourteen year old girl employed in his uncle's
pencil factory in Atlanta, Leo Max Frank (1884-1915), a mechanical
engineer, was tried and found guilty, and the decision appealed,
in a climate of intense anti-Semitism. When his sentence was
commuted from death to life by the governor of Georgia, he was dragged
by a mob from prison and lynched...
(An Atlas of the Difficult World 60).
is this desire in Rich to ground her poetry in particular historical
events that necessitates a 'Notes' section at the end of her book.
From the inclusion of the 'Notes' the reader is prompted back into
the poems armed with a new way to read them. Rich suggests
that the poems do not have a life that eclipses these events as
they occurred in history. The historical data then elucidates
the poems, tells us that Rich is concerned with history and wants
both to be loyal to it and to retell it, to re-vision it within
reading the 'Notes' one must conclude that Rich has accomplished
a feat of unusual harmony. She has created a poetry that vibrates
at three frequencies. It is a poetry that both locates itself
in time, that refuses to deny the particularity of historical events
and conditions, and a poetry that has transcended time with the
potency of metaphor. Here metaphor moves out beyond the incident,
beyond the suffering of one person and toward the evocation of an
emblem. For Rich it is an emblem that can be used to empower
or assuage or inspire readers as needed. This is the final
note that creates her committed multiplicity as an artist, as an
activist: in this way even her metaphoric trajectory is targeted
to feed back into the world, to provide succor, to help restore
Adrienne. An Atlas of the Difficult World.
New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Adrienne. Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1986.