Review of Blue Atlas by Susan Rich

Cover of Blue Atlas: A deep blue-green colored staircase is shown in a side profile view, with four cobalt blue colored vases or jugs positioned on each stair.

Blue Atlas by Susan Rich

Red Hen Press, 2024

112 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Sarah Carey

In her latest book, Blue Atlas, newly released from Red Hen Press, award-winning Washington poet Susan Rich confronts and chronicles her world before, during and after an abortion she underwent as a young woman in the mid-1980s. The abortion provides a point from which Rich’s speaker measures her relative distance, in physical and emotional space and time, to whatever her ultimate truth might be — her true north.

At the same time, Rich recognizes that no truth is absolute and no destination final. Past, present and future exist within the 50 poems in this ambitious work, which weave through time and place as Rich continually orbits the traumatic event that she refers to in “Binocular Vision” as “my choiceless choice.” 

Organized into seven named sections, the poems in this stunning collection render detailed testimony of not just the abortion procedure itself, but also the relationship that caused the speaker’s pregnancy — an ill-fated affair with a man she met in Africa — and her decisions to terminate both. At the same time, Rich maintains a detachment and a control over her subject matter that allows her to simultaneously zoom in and pan out of her personal story and experience. 

She sets the tone of the book in the first poem, “This Could Happen,” which opens with these two lines:

If you kept walking, you would eventually step outside of yourself.
You would leave the bones of your body

the bloodlines to all that you loved.

But the poems that unfold hardly lead us into a void. Rather, readers gain access to some of the most intimate aspects of the speaker’s life, from her complicated family relationships to her Jewish ancestry, to her doomed love affair, the abortion, and the life she subsequently built.

Like a film director producing a documentary, or a human rights observer documenting injustice in a troubled region — a job she has, in fact, held — Rich drops the reader into and out of the speaker’s life from childhood to youth to mature adulthood, providing a narrative in which moments of trauma and survival are juxtaposed and reflect against one another, yet are part of one thread.

In “Post-Abortion Questionnaire Powered by Survey Monkey,” from the book’s first section, “Hourglass,” Rich evokes a powerful contrast between 12 matter-of-fact, survey-like questions and raw human emotions, a technique that chillingly conveys the gap between what the surveyor views as information and the respondent’s out-of-body truth. In the fifth question, the survey asks:

“Do you tend to think of your life in terms of “before” and “after” the abortion?”
Too scared to speak my name—
not etherized upon the table—
I wore silver stirrups, blue wrap-around globe.
The young nurse and I held hands—
you’re doing great, she cooed.
I remained awake, awakened.

In “Goldfinch,” the first poem from the second section, “Glass Sponge,” Rich transports us back to her childhood and to an incident when she was not quite 4 years old and she was locked in an attic by her sister and her friends:

They locked me up and then
forgot me—

here in the rope-cold dark.

I stammer a calligraphy of fears;
I listen to a cinema

Of laughter and then its silence.

This will be my life.

The subtitles of something—
Terror, imagination, or a flare

across my throat.

Rich’s “calligraphy of fears” in “Goldfinch” include being unable to speak, becoming invisible and forgotten, and offer context for her determination to keep any of these things from defining her, a theme that recurs throughout the collection. The very existence of the book as a whole is a testament to that determination — to the poet’s commitment to express her truth. 

But Rich resists defining truth too neatly, and even interrogates the idea that language alone is capable of  honing it; an open mind and receptive senses can gauge changing landscapes, in which truth may be experienced differently, surprisingly, in a different light. From “Try to Be Done Now with Words,” a poem that also appears in the “Glass Sponge” section and appeared originally in Tinderbox in 2014:

O brave mouth—and touch and scent—
send coherent messages through this body
like flares off a meteor shower.

You can become your own glass sponge—
move through this world—silent, astonished, undone.

In “Burn Barrel,” from the book’s fifth section, “A Second Earth Orbiting a Star,” the poem’s speaker directly addresses her former lover:

You think I write about you to remember
One sand-lit dinner in the Sahel

but I don’t. Not to think of your skin spice
with cardamom and sweat, nor the bullet

proof smile you kept. Not to hear again
the timbre of your voice—dusk

spangling through my chest like a meteor.

No, Rich writes. Instead, she says:

I write of you to stake a claim
not to make sense of a man who
worshipped only his own words—

who never tried to read the bright leavings
nuanced and telling in mine.

While Rich is determined to craft her own narrative, the claim she stakes, the self she opens us up to in Blue Atlas, belies words. The successful debriding of physical wounds may require keen surgical skills, but Rich recognizes that no spiritual wound will ever close neatly, even with the most impassioned wordsmithing.  In “Try to Be Done With Words,” Rich brings us down to earth and gives a big F-you to the idea that words alone can heal a world or provide a tidy epilogue to trauma:

Away with the language of weeping,
the angel of perfection can go hang herself

and burn her lilies of ambition, too.

As imperfect as language is to capture a life, I was captivated by the way Rich’s lost pregnancy reverberates metaphorically in the way she carries her ancestors, holding their shared history of trauma like a pregnancy of memory and tradition, both temporal and eternal. 

In “Pregnant with the Dead,” Rich’s speaker is “a woman swollen with the history of (her) dead”:

great aunts and second cousins murdered
in the old country—bloated with fragments of survivors

who hid months in garbage cans, others in partisan forests;
I’m their bandaged daughter gauzed from toe to forehead

to keep safe from search patrols, from their first rapes.

In “Compass,” Rich takes a little-known fact about Elizabeth Bishop — one that she’d discovered and been intrigued enough to write about, namely that Bishop carried a compass in her small jacket pocket. In this poem, Rich asks:

Could a compass—initially used in fortune telling, invented in the Han Dynasty—buoy
her with its divining arrow, its quivering and irregular
heartbeat? What are the coordinates of the soul:
mist-filled or incandescent, briny as ocean air or rugged
as Ouro Preto?

Rich recognizes that the “coordinates of the soul” are varied in emotional texture and hue.

The late poet Linda Pastan wrote,  “I made a list of things I have to remember and a list/of things I want to forget/but I see they are the same list.”1 Rich’s poems are insistent witnesses, as rich in imagery as they are in tone and scope. They reach us as chronicles of trauma, branching out like the blue-green needles of the Blue Atlas cedar tree, native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and for which the book is titled.

While her abortion serves as a central focus, the broader vision Rich leaves us with in Blue Atlas is one of liberation, told through the lens of a woman who has survived a pivotal, traumatic event, but has come to terms with the fact that the emotional doors that hinge past to present to future will always be a part of who she is.

“I try to exist in the somehow, the might still be/gaze upward to constellations of in-between,” says Rich’s speaker in “Boketto.” 

And in “Metaphors”:

I am your desired, your dreaded almost—
blue atlas and weeping willow—
the past, seen ahead; the necessary tomorrow.

Reading Blue Atlas was a kaleidoscopic journey for me; I felt transported into the speaker’s intricately threaded narratives, following her linguistic signage through each page as I would a trusted guide. From an abortionist’s clinic to the Saharan desert, a childhood basement to the speaker’s kitchen, I felt drawn into the many worlds and landscapes, including her own interior topography, that Rich as author/auteur renders within her meticulous mise-en-scène.

1Linda Pastan’s poem, “List,” first appeared in Poetry, 1982.
A woman with dark shoulder length hair and wearing an olive green sweater and matching scarf looks off to the rose in a side profile image.

Sarah Carey is a graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Five Points, Radar, Sugar House Review, Florida Review, Redivider and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, EcoTheo Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and the Los Angeles Review. 

Sarah’s poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Orison Anthology. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, including Accommodations (2019), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award. Her debut full-length collection of poems will be published later this year by Saint Julian Press. Visit her at SarahKCarey.com or on Twitter @SayCarey1.