An Atlas of the Difficult World

by Adrienne Rich

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Themes and Meanings

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“An Atlas of the Difficult World” is a poetic pilgrimage to a place where change is possible. As Adrienne Rich states in “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” “I am the woman who asks the questions.” Advocating social and political change is not new for Rich, who since the 1960’s has been prominent in the women’s and the feminist-lesbian movements. The theme of inclusion rather than separatism permeates this poem as it identifies and reaffirms the poet’s connection with the common woman and even the common man. Unlike The Dream of a Common Language (1978), written for and about women, this poetic sequence embraces all who are disfranchised, disenchanted, and conscious of the oppression and decay of Western society. Rich sees hope resting in her readers, notably her female readers, as envisioned in the final section. The questions she reiterates in two earlier sections (V and XI) resonate with her purpose:

Where are we moored?What are the bindings?What behooves us?

Both challenging and embracing the reader by using the pronoun “we,” she bridges the gap between herself, a self-described white, Jewish, middle-class woman, and others who are very different. This tone of inclusiveness provides a sense of community in the struggle and dramatizes the poet’s recognition that she is not alone, that there are others “torn between bitterness and hope.”

Ultimately, the text of feminism is too confining to construct the foundation necessary to build a better world. Therefore, the philosophical framework for her vision of the transformation of women, depicted in earlier works including Diving into the Wreck (1973) and The Dream of a Common Language, must be expanded. It must include both men and women in order to create the changes necessary for emerging from “the death-freeze of the century.” Rich calls to those who have marched before and are homesick for their “true country” and to those who have the moral courage to ask difficult questions.

A formidable poet, Rich is unwilling to let her poetic voice for change be silenced because of political expediency or immobilizing apathy. As she explained in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979), a collection of prose written between 1966 and 1978, she feels compelled to speak for those who “are less conscious of what they are living through.” In “An Atlas of the Difficult World” she is not only speaking for other women but also describing them and internalizing their lives in an attempt to enlist them in the struggle for change. They, she believes, are the hope for the future. As she states in “Final Notations,” the last poem of the collection An Atlas of the Difficult World, the struggle “will take all your heart, it will take all your breath.”

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