Book: An Atlas of the Difficult World

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An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991

Author: Adrienne Rich
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

“This is no place you ever knew me,” writes Adrienne Rich in her major new work, “…These are not the roads/you knew me by.” As always in her forty-year career, this major poet has mapped out new territory , astonishing and enlightening us with her penetrating insight into our lives amid the beauties and cruelties of our difficult world.


The heart of Adrienne Rich’s award-winning collection beats in its title sequence, 13 poems charting “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” Like Atlas, who bears Earth on his shoulders, Rich bears—and wields—an enormous political consciousness. These poems find her struggling to say what is honest and true, resisting easy answers, having the ambition to risk everything; these are the energies for which her readers return. For example, after deriding as solipsistic the poetry of Richard Hugo, she writes:

I wonder if this is a white man’s madness.
I honor your truth and refuse to leave it at that.
What have I learned from stories of the hunt, of lonely men in gangs?
But there were other stories…

Rich knows that mere political poetry has a quick expiration date. Her genius enables her to speak to the moment and to posterity simultaneously. “Catch if you can your country’s moment, begin / where any calendar’s ripped-off: Appomattox / Wounded Knee, Los Alamos / Selma, the last airlift from Saigon,” she exhorts at one point, tuning the present to its history like Muriel Rukeyser or Ezra Pound. Early in the book Rich praises “those needed to teach, advise, persuade, weigh arguments … the meticulous delicate work of reaching the heart of the desperate woman, the desperate man / —never-to-be-finished, still unbegun work of repair,” but wonders who will continue this work in the America she has witnessed. “It cannot be done without them / and where are they now?” With this, her 21st book, her echo returns the answer. —Edward Skoog

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