An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991
Region of Unlikeness
The titles of these new volumes by two distinguished poets remind us of literary predecessors. Jorie Graham’s title comes from Saint Augustine, who said he found himself far from God, in “a region of unlikeness.” (The phrase—in the form Land of Unlikeness—was used by Robert Lowell too.) Rich’s geographical title may recall titles by Elizabeth Bishop, who called her last book Geography III, and thought of herself as a mapper of those regions named, in another book, North and South. Both Graham and Rich, in their titles, are emphasizing that the description of contemporary culture is a primary commitment of the artist. If for the reader the description is convincing—formally as well as thematically—the poems have a chance; if not, not.
Many of the poems in both these books are several pages long (we are far from the origins of lyric in the short song, the charm, the riddle, the quip, the carol, the epigram). Here are some of their “real-life” subjects. Among Graham’s twenty-four poems we find the following:
“Fission”: Being an adolescent in 1963, sitting in a movie theater and watching Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita; a man suddenly runs in shouting, “The President’s been shot”;
“From the New World”: A splicing-together of three vignettes—
a) A historical scene: a young girl in a concentration camp “who didn’t die in the gas chamber comes back out asking for her mother” and is raped before being sent back in;
b) A contemporary (1987) scene: the trial in Israel of a former Nazi concentration camp guard, the one who ordered the rape;
c) A personal anecdote: the author’s senile grandmother, in a nursing home, is no longer able to recognize her granddaughter;
“The Hiding Place”: The “disturbances” in Paris of 1968 (“les évènements,” as the French called the student strikes and closing of universities);
“The Region of Unlikeness”: A thirteen-year-old girl waking up disoriented and frightened from a first sexual experience and running home through the dawn;
“The Phase After History”: The attempted suicide of a young man; his commitment to a hospital; his subsequent successful suicide. These episodes are spliced between the phases of an incident in which two birds are trapped in the speaker’s house.
Among Rich’s thirteen poems, we find the following:
“An Atlas of the Difficult World,” the title poem, a sequence, of which these are some parts:
—Migrant workers ill from the effects of picking strawberries dusted with malathion;
—A trailer; the man in it beating his wife, tearing up her writing, throwing the kerosene lantern at her, backing the truck into her as she tries to run away;
—Memories of Rich’s young married life in Barton, Vermont, with her husband, before he died;
—The 1968 shotgun attack by a man on two women camping on the Appalachian Trail; the attack was made (according to Rich’s note) because the women were lesbians. One was killed, the other wounded by five bullets;
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