Adrienne Rich

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This essay will present the motif of the mapmaker in Adrienne Rich’s book Atlas of the Difficult World.  The themes throughout the book will be extolled in this essay and dissected through the theme of this subject brought together through metaphor, concrete imagery and the allusion to place as well as destination which Rich suggests throughout her work in concepts both metaphysical, and real.

Rich’s title poem of Atlas of the Difficult World brings forth a voice which is cut into a duality of realism as well as a harsh sense of that reality.  The images prevalent in this poem brings the images of the map into a bizarre reality which suggests a striking and honest concept of Americana in a disturbing light.  This is the key factor of the theme of map in Rich’s Atlas of the Difficult World: which is, in the very least, best described as disturbing.

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The title poem relates to the reader the concept of women’s work.  This poem then imagines for the readers the idea of placement such as topographical, geographical or landscape; Rich presents the concept to the reader of where a woman is in relation to the margins of the country.

The poem further expounds upon this notion by suggesting the idea, or rather of questioning the reader as to the nature of the woman’s  place in relation to ‘our’ consciousness in a topographical sense of the term.  This would seem as though Rich is delving into a political stream of consciousness, but it is in the map, in the geography, or landscape which rests as the pinnacle of the poem’s place as it relates to the reader.

In the issue of maps, of place, Rich also brings forth the concept of roles, of patriarchy and the woman’s dialectic towards such a predestined role.  Rich goes on to extrapolate from the concept of topography the idea of a woman’s place, or women’s work.

The poem is a tantalizing tease between the idea of women’s work in the margins of the country, and the map of women’s recorded obsequious nature, but not her unrecorded consciousness as to her own definition of place.

   The title poem then serves as a gateway from the speaker to the reader through the path of topography into the un-traversed landscape of indirect and misguided concepts of what women’s work is, and the conscious factor of that work and its place in the United States.  The poem serves as an undercurrent to an alternative to the idea of landscape, of the United States in regards to feminism (as is a standard theme in Rich’s poems), politics, and personal space.

The way in which boundaries of the ‘map’ (politics, consciousness, gender, etc.) are disregarded by the speaker is a fundamental element in the poem; this disregard allows for both the speaker and the reader to explore other areas of the typography, and the structure of such devices as gender, roles, etc.

Thus, the speaker allows the reader to realize the relation of self, role, politics, and all of the above, to the composition of the atlas, and the role that an individual, or in this case, the role of the reader as a map reader:

I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural then yes let it be these are small distinctions where do we see it from is the question (pt. II, ll. 22-24).

Thus, the concept of personal roles comes into play in the poem as a question of perspective.

The role of the narrator then is to allow the reader a chance to be guided through the atlas.  The atlas in the poem pays attention to not only geography but also stories; such stories are in relation to historical facts as well as personal lives.

This allows the reader to respond to the poem through various avenues of perspective such as they may be presented through historical place, and geography as well as body and mind locations; thus, each reading of the poem by individual readers will give a different perspective of the atlas since each reader is coming from their own personal frame of reference.

The poet, the narrator comes into the poem and suggests or brings forth to the reader the daring possibility of questioning their own place in the atlas, the landscape.

This challenge is perpetuated from the concept of women’s work, and the changing definition of what that entails, "These are not roads / you knew me by. But the woman driving, walking, watching / for life and death, is the same" (pt. I, ll. 77-79).

The narrator presents women on the map, or the road to the reader, and the reader in turn becomes an active part of the poem since the reader brings their own interpretation through personal reference to the perspective of these women.

The poems then are different roads along the entirety of the atlas, and the question which the poet reiterates to the reader is where do the poems take the reader; which direction?  Thus, affirmation of the role of the map is a central motif in Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World.

The following poems of Atlas of a Difficult World then are each designed as a road into the different parts of the atlas on different levels and from different perspectives.   The poems are not limited to the topography of the atlas but also delve into the history of the place.  There are thirteen parts of the book which in turn are vignettes which come from a myriad of women’s lives.

The voice which Rich lends to each ‘story’ is relatively urgent and gives the reader a sense that it is important that they read these lines not only for the benefit of the woman who lived the story but for the reader’s personal benefit since it is with the reader that a continuation and change in the story may occur.  This allows the reader to become part of an oral history for the nation, and thus a map maker in a sense, as memory is presented by Rich as a type of map, it is with this metaphor that the poems progress.

  It is by recognizing the importance of history, even in small characters that allows for the roles of women to change from obsequious to strong willed; from patriarchal to gynocentric.  Rich’s purpose in her poems is a striking narrative of forcing the reader to notice how women have been excluded in large part from the history, the geography of the land, the United States’ history.

Thus, through use of landscape and the connection of landscape to events, Rich gives the reader a chance to notice these women.

In Part I of Atlas of a Difficult World, Rich gives testimonies from a myriad of women who have a vast knowledge of economic hardship which incites fear and which either delays or spurns action forward.  There is also a theme of silence and the breaking of silence in the atlas, the memory of these moments with the different women in the poems.

There is one poem which gives details of an unknown woman who was murdered:  The woman was a farm worker who had been in deep exposure to toxins:  "Malathion in the throat, communion, / the hospital at the edge of the fields, / prematures slipping from unsafe wombs" (ll. 8-10).

This woman has a type of communion with death, and her character is anonymous because there are countless other women who are or were in the same situation, so many that their story became one story it had been told too often that the names were unimportant and then, eventually her story was forgotten.  Rich brings the concept of the mapmaker as a memory harvester into her poems to give the reader an interactive part in the poem.

Since this story is being retold to the reader, the reader must carry it in their memory, and thus give credit to the live that died, to the woman.  The woman had been oppressed and exposed to environmental dangers, and because the woman had worked to survive but died anyway, it is important that her life be chartered into this ‘atlas’ of memory, of story.

Rich does not want the idea of denial of memory to play a major role in the development of the country, of the atlas as she writes, "I don't want to hear how he beat her . . ., / tore up her writing . . . / . . . I don't want to know / wreckage" (ll. 39-40, 48-49).

The interesting factor in this woman’s story is that her small death is actually a beginning of a national cover up story, and thus, her story becomes part of the landscape of history, however minute.  The woman’s death is a national cover up which involved violence and amoral behavior and which were the opposite of the striving of America, in industry.  Through the denial of this story, history is changed, is made false through the help of the media.

This theme of denial changes the landscape of the map, it erases important structures of the geography, and this lead into Part V of Atlas of a Difficult World in which a queer woman is murdered and yet, her story does not succumb to erasure:

I don't want to know how he tracked them along the Appalachian Trail, hid close by their tent, pitched as they thought in seclusion killing one woman, the other dragging herself into town his defense they had teased his loathing of what they were I don't want to know but this is not a bad dream of mine (ll. 45-51).

In Parts II and III, the poem becomes an evocation of the American ideal or geography.  The poems exercise their voice towards symmetry or balance in history in which women’s history is not erased or ruined or made to seem slavish, but instead integrates the real roles of women.

In Part IV the poems introduce mourning of the women lost in the margins of the atlas, whose stories were covered up or never known, and the poem cries for ‘still unbegun work of repair’ (1. 25).  In this part, women are alluded to as prisoners, "locked away out of sight and hearing, out of mind, shunted aside / those needed to teach, advise, persuade, weigh arguments / those urgently needed for the work of perception" (ll. 19-21).

It seems that Rich is suggesting that these women were covered up in the landslide of the country, or that they were unchartered in its conception, unrecognized.

In Parts VI-VIII Rich gives the allusion of the map and the lives of the women unraveling which becomes apparent as the men in the stories, or poems went on dreaming large dreams in the landscape of the history of the atlas, while the women went on with untold stories of contention, they women went on without receiving.

Rich goes on to state in these parts that the men continued in the map of the country thinking, and Rich suggests the irony of this by stating, "Slaves - you would not be that" (pt. VI, l. 14).  This is a main point made by Rich in which she is stating that the men did not allow themselves to be considered or made slaves through physical force nor psychological devices but that women and others had to bear that history.

There is a culmination of the focus of map making in Parts IX-XI which studies the fragmentation of the atlas through false history, as Rich states through the narrator, "one woman / like and unlike so many, fooled as to her destiny, the scope of her task" (pt. XI, ll. 16-17).

In Part XII Rich gives the reader a chance of seeing restoration in the land through the recognition of women’s roles and values by giving the reader these lines to ponder, "What homage will be paid to a beauty built to last / from inside out . . . / I didn't speak then / of your beauty at the wheel beside me . . . / - I speak of them now" (ll. 1-2, 9-10, 18).

Thus, being a mapmaker, or a keeper of true history is the legacy Rich gives to her readers.  It is through the role of speaking and not remaining silent, of allowing the atlas to grow, and of exploring the roads which were once unchartered that Rich’s motif of map making is an allusion to recognition of women’s history, as Rich writes, "I know you are reading this poem" throughout the last part because the poem aspires to be nothing less than the unspoken, archetypal stories women know well.

Rich concludes, "I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read / there where you have landed, stripped as you are" (ll. 36-37) which in its honesty gives women a place on the atlas of the United States instead of remaining in the margins, in the back alleys of the topography.

Work Cited

Rich, A.  An Atlas of a Difficult World.  W.W. Norton & Company.  1991.

Cite this Page

Adrienne Rich. (2016, Jun 16). Retrieved from

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