Jessie Li

Jessie Li is an editorial fellow with AtlanticLIVE.
  • Radical Hope in Adrienne Rich’s ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’

    Bruno Domingos / Reuters

    In her 13-section poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” Adrienne Rich portrays an America of devastation and longing. The first 12 sections chart the geography of American history, traversing the country from California to Vermont, as well as a geography of human empowerment, from “some for whom peace is a white man’s word and a white man’s privilege” to:

    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
                        to lift and sponge, day upon day …

    In particular, Rich interrogates national identity and patriotism when horrific events—she mentions Selma and Wounded Knee—exemplify “your country’s moment.”

    Yet if the antidote to despair is hope, then "Dedications," the last of the 13 sections, is a kaleidoscopic testament to hope, at once a letter and a prayer. Rich turns directly to the reader:

    I know you are reading this poem
    late, before leaving your office
    of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window …

    She evokes the image of feeble light against growing darkness throughout the poem, juxtaposing the dim desolation of life with the illumination of resistance.