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An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991

An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991Adrienne RichWW Norton & Company1991

An Atlas of the Difficult World is Adrienne Rich’s thirteenth book of verse, in which she writes of war, oppression, the future, death, mystery, love and the magic of poetry.

In her interview with Bill Moyers, Adrienne Rich states that the title poem of her 1991 collection An Atlas of the Difficult World “reflects on the condition of my country, which I wrote very consciously as a citizen poet, looking at the geography, the history, the people of my country.” The specific event that led Rich to write a poem about the condition of the United States was the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991, which on another occasion she describes as George H. W. Bush administration’s ploy to distract people “from the domestic anger and despair.” “An Atlas of the Difficult World” is an extended inquiry into the nature of patriotism in a time of war—as Rich says: “I am bent on fathoming what it means to love my country.” The poem functions as a geography and history lesson, offering a panoramic view of America—the “difficult world” of the title—haunted by contradictory legacies of freedom and slavery, idealism and materialism, democracy and capitalism. Like Walt Whitman, whose characteristic techniques of catalog and anecdote she borrows, Rich recognizes the promise of America but also exposes its many failures. Like Muriel Rukeyser, the second vital precursor in the poem, she takes her readers to places they would otherwise never visit. Approximating in length T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and even including some endnotes, “An Atlas” offers a picture of the late twentieth-century United States in a state of crisis.

Gwiazda P.K. (2014) “Nothing Else Left to Read”: Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas of the Difficult World”. In: US Poetry in the Age of Empire, 1979–2012. Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137466273_3