An illustration of two statues with a fountain in the middle, branches around them, and silhouettes painted in pink and green
Miki Lowe

Ideal Landscape

Published in The Atlantic in 1953

Adrienne Rich, or at least the version of her that people typically remember, was never resigned to the status quo. By the time of her death in 2012, she’d become a feminist leader, an antiwar advocate, and a poet who wrote boldly about politics, human rights, and sexuality. She had vowed to not pay her taxes in protest of the Vietnam War, and she refused a National Medal of Arts, criticizing political leaders. But she wasn’t always considered radical; her early works were quieter, more careful in both form and theme. One of them, the 1953 poem “Ideal Landscape,” starts with a line that now seems uncharacteristic of Rich: “We had to take the world as it was given.”

For most of the poem, Rich lists disappointments: mornings, “similar and stark,” when we wake just for the day to pass; friends and lovers, letting us down; human nature, “raw, flawed”; and even time itself, rushing away. She describes these heartbreaks with such placid beauty and calm that she actually seems at peace letting them be. But toward the end of the poem, a jagged bit of longing cuts through. She recalls the feeling of looking for certain streets, great and sunny in her memory, that seem to have disappeared from the map altogether.

In the decades after this poem, Rich gained both fame and political awareness; she urged people not to take the world as it was given. But even in this early work, her yearning for a better reality is starting to brew. She knew there were some imperfections that must be accepted—indeed, one has to see the flawed world clearly in order to change it. But she also felt, it seems, some desire to chase a phantom vision of what could be—“those gilded trees, those statues green and white,” which, even if never discovered, guided her ceaselessly forward.

The original magazine page with shapes painted in pink and green, and two branches with leaves around the poem

You can zoom in on the page here.