I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope…
I was 19 when I first read Adrienne Rich and these words from “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” which seemed to tear down the barriers between the poem and me, and let me in.
Like Rich, I grew up at a distance from true poverty: “reader reading under a summer tree in the landscape of the rural working poor,” she writes. But I knew how fractured and unstable the world around me was becoming. I was part of the first generation to grow up knowing about climate change, brought to world attention by James Hansen and to my school classroom by a forward-thinking science teacher. I was in high school when the Soviet Union collapsed; as a child, I had nightmares about nuclear war. Rich’s poetry gave me hope that stories could change things—could force us to confront and heal what is painful and give us hope, strength, and compassion.
Rich died on Tuesday—a profound loss at a time when we urgently need more storytelling that reaches across our fragmented, politically divided culture. “Atlas” is still one of the most searing and honest descriptions I’ve read about how broken and divisive the modern world is. It’s a 26-page poem that sweeps across the landscapes and histories of North America and elevates people and scenes that are ordinary, neglected, and counted out—farmworkers made sick from pesticides, a woman beaten by her partner, the wasting of our ecological landscapes, weedy fields of Jerusalem artichoke “that fed the hobos, could feed us all.”
Here is a map of our country …
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms …
This is the cemetery of the poor …
This is the sea-town of myth and story when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt … processing frozen fish sticks hourly wages and no shares
Occupy didn’t exist then, of course, but Rich was crafting poetry for the 99 percent: “a poetry older / than hatred. Poetry / in the workhouse, laying of the rails.”
Rich’s long, image-dense lines could seem of out-of-step with a world obsessed with rapid-fire information, Twitter, and text messages. But Rich knew that the marginalization of poets is always a detriment to civil society. In the early 1980s, she traveled to Nicaragua, where she felt the culture “manifested a belief in art, not as commodity, not as luxury, not as suspect activity, but … one necessity for the rebuilding of a scarred, impoverished, and still-bleeding country.”
Rich belonged to an activist strain of poetry; she believed words needed to be reclaimed by the people who have been disempowered and left out of the history books. Her own life is a testament to the power of story in creating cultural change. Rich started college in the late 1940s, when she says even Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing was radical for a university campus and certainly no one spoke of feminist ideas in the classroom.
Early in her career, Rich had to scrape together a new kind of language. She used poetry to utter ideas that were almost unspeakable at the time: her poetry pulled back the veil around women’s sexuality and lesbian love and exposed the power and politics that enable war and violence: “I felt driven—for my own sanity—to bring together in my poems the political world ‘out there’—the world of children dynamited or napalmed, of the urban ghetto and militaristic violence—and the supposedly private, lyrical world of male/female relationships,” she said. She published Snapshots of a Daughter in Law, which she calls her first book to overtly tackle sexual politics, in 1963. Decades later, her poetry is still radical, but it’s also a mainstay in college literature classrooms across the country. Her poetry has been a beacon to feminists and social justice activists for several generations, and is included a digital poetry anthology pieced together by organizers of Occupy Wall Street.
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Rich never wanted her poetry to be a medium primarily for academe. And she never believed words alone could solve the abuses and inequalities that she wrote about. But reclaiming, decolonizing, and taking charge of language was for Rich the first step in become personally whole and politically powerful. “Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum,” she said in a 2006 speech at the National Book Awards, where she received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
We owe Rich a debt for unlocking the doors that barred the voices of women from art, academe, and the halls of influence for so long. And though she insisted on marking each poem with a date—so that it would stand in the historical context in which she wrote it—everything about her poetry still speaks with urgency and timeliness. Her work illuminates the dark, messy, often painful territory of sex, race, violence, and poverty in America but holds all of us responsible for taking power, ending suffering, and breaking apart social inequalities. In “Atlas,” she writes, “A patriot is one who wrestles for the / soul of her country / as she wrestles for the soul of her own being.” This is what Rich did her whole life, and her poetry enjoins the rest of us to do the same.