Beginning with her preceding two collections of poetry, Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988 (1989) and Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Rich has been developing a more expansive poetic line. As the titles of these two earlier collections indicate, as well as the title An Atlas of the Difficult World, Rich has recast her poetics in the expansiveness of space and time. In these three collections, Rich has also written in longer forms, notably long poetic sequences. The combination of longer lines, poems built through a sequence of sections, and the expansive and reflective metaphors of land, time, and atlas have established in Rich’s voice a greater amplitude.
The personal and particular still define Rich’s poetic didacticism: She teaches and illuminates through specific examples. From the opening section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” Rich portrays a battered woman, beaten after an earthquake, a kerosene lantern thrown in her face, her writing torn up:
. . . I don’t want to thinkhow her guesses betrayed her—that he meant well, that shewas really stronger and ought not to leave himto his own apparent devastation. I don’t want to knowwreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materialsand so are the slow lift of the moon’s bellyover wreckage, dreck, and waste, wild treefrogs calling inanother season, light and music still pouring overour fissured, cracked terrain.
The wreckage of relationships with others is as much part of the poet’s material as are the particulars of the natural world. In Rich’s earlier poetry, the natural world was excluded; here, however, it is a necessary counterbalance. Nothing can be excluded, no matter how fatigued one is, how often one has heard such accounts. To think and know requires that one listen to these accounts as well as hear the “wild treefrogs calling in/ another season.” By breaking the lines on “think” and “know,” Rich is able to convey the responsibility one has to know and think fully: To exclude awareness of one issue is to fail wholly.
Within the natural world, Rich often discovers metaphors for her condition. At the conclusion of the third section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” Rich invokes Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (1881) but refuses to appropriate her. Instead, the spider’s own path is cast; like the poet, she “will use everything,/ nothing comes without labor.” Rich re-visions Whitman’s self-assuredness by asking herself how she can know what the spider needs. To answer for another can only be provisional: “Maybe simply/ to spin herself a house within a house, on her own terms/ in cold, in silence.” Thus, Rich acutely observes the natural world and sees in it ethical understanding. By invoking images that resonate with literary history, Rich enters into a dialogue with the past.
Rich’s poetry is one of continual self-examination. One example of this questioning is her increasing scrutiny of her identity as a Jew. While this is evident in the extended reflections in the third section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” other poems in this collection reveal...
(The entire section is 784 words.)