Friday, September 11, 2009

different light and life.


I stumbled on Adrianne Rich's "An Atlas of the Difficult World" today. A poem I have loved in the past but not read in at least a year.... And today, it seemed a completely different poem. Parts of the poem refer to the foggy bay, the reaching redwoods, the vast shimmering Pacific. Images that were once almost imaginary, creations in my mind's eye that could be envisioned, but not experienced. But now, living in Berkeley, spending afternoons in San Fransisco, watching the sun slice through layers of fog, casting shimmery shapes across the ocean and sand and towering pines -- the poem takes on a new familiarity. Coming to this poem today felt like finding a sweater packed away for many months, that is rediscovered, and is suddenly treasured with new love and need during a cold season. Its a poem I can wrap myself in. She writes:

Within two miles of the Pacific rounding
this long bay, sheening the light for miles
inland, floating its fog through redwood rifts and over
strawberry and artichoke fields, its bottomless mind
returning to the same rocks, the same cliffs, with
ever-changing words, always the same language
--- this is where I live now. If you had known me
once, you’d still know me now though in a different
light and life. This is no place you ever knew me...
These are not the roads you knew me by.
But the woman driving, walking, watching
for life and death, is the same.

I connect so deeply with finding oneself in a such a different world and new life, yet experiencing the familiar language of the inner life that has always been your own. A feeling of existing in a new world, with an old self. Being unchanged yet changed in the same moment. And Rich captures it like few other writers could. With poignancy, with certain beauty and a tinge of sadness. She embraces her new world with such tender attention, and yet with her love of newness, there is a hint of longing to be recognized, and to be seen as the one you've always known yourself to be. I love the poem's rich descriptions of experiencing life in a strange yet known landscape -- they seem intimately familiar and deeply personal. The more powerful part of the poem, still, is the final section. It is the most quoted, most well-known part for good reason:

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 hand
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.

The poem up until that section seems to be a mirror in which we see Rich, or at least in which we view a particular way of experiencing the world. But then she suddenly turns the mirror. We stop gazing at someone else’s reflection, and begin viewing ourselves. She sees each of us, our needs and intricacies are both particular and universal. I read it and feel my own hunger and thirst for poetry and art. I feel at home in the fact that she speaks directly to me and to others in our wide need to find beauty, and to make meaning. In this moment, Rich isn’t just writing a poem because she needs to, but she is writing to us, the readers, the dreamers, the hungry, the broken, the passionate and the tired, because we need her to write. We need her words. We need her mirror. And more than anything we need the blessed gift of somehow feeling seen. And that is what this poem does… it does not merely help us to see, but it sees us, looks up at us from the page and loves each of us ferociously. Loves us, whatever light and life we have landed in.

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