From an Atlas of the Difficult World

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Adrienne Rich's poem From an Atlas of the Difficult World


  1. Mary says:

    THis poem has meaning beyond the surface meaning. It holds power over the reader, pulling you in like your a child on a playground. Antisipating what you want to play on next. Reading this poem takes you in and guess what… you dont mind it. Its a poem about reading poems…or is it?

  2. Margarita says:

    I haven’t felt so loved since my last visit to the health clinic. Really. It’s a bit of a story.

    This poem made me feel *understood*, but not at all violated.

  3. Div says:

    I think this piece is so powerful because it can be universalized, anyone can see themselves in her explanation of their need for poetry, but she was actually addressing a much smaller audience than a first reading would imply. There are levels to her audience and levels of meaning to be read in the poem.

    The title and the final line imply great struggle, beyond (I think) the mundane struggles of the every day consumer of poetry. Adrienne Rich was an extremely astute lesbian feminist poet and she very well may be speaking to women, or specifically lesbians in this poem. The need for a life-narrative (an alternative to the hetero-norm) that makes sense, and the need for an expression of that marginal and oppressed existence in literature of some kind (specifically poetry) may be what she is communicating in this poem. Not only do humans need poetry, but women need the poetry of other women, and lesbians need the poetry of other lesbians. This intense need for community and community narratives gives deeper meaning to the diverse situations in which we find ourselves connecting with poetry, and Adrienne Rich communicates it through her poem without excluding other audience members from the experience. That’s a powerful expression of the connectedness of a community of humans that actually privileges the marginal without excluding the mainstream audience.

  4. Kathrin says:

    This poem is so fascinating because it interacts with the reader. One of the situation described my reading of the poem. It is a poem about reading poems. And it celebrates the word, the single letter, language so to speak. It also shows how we need poetry like we need food. I found that rather interesting as you often think of poetry as something special not something you would read while heating milk.

  5. Florence Trocmé says:

    I find also this poem beautiful. It’s a pity because in France we have no Rich’s translation, only unpublished or sometimes in review like Le nouveau recueil, translations by Claire Malroux (Claire Malroux is translated in english by Marilyn Hacker). I am reading poetry all day long, all days long and in most of the situations evocated by Rich ! Why ? Because I need poetry all the time, to feed my head, my heart, my soul, my life.
    I have created a blog at, in France, and I publish very often extracts of american poetry, as often as possible with original text.

  6. Ed Eckel says:

    This poem so beautifully and powerfully captures the deep need we humans have for poetry, how we will get it wherever we can, however we can, even while heating milk on the stove, holding our crying baby. (I certainly can understand this need, being a new father myself.)

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