What caught my attention in this poem was the focussing effect present right from the beginning. The poem starts as the depiction of a painting, of a picture. The isotopia of painting and art in general helps building this effect: the word “scene” is repeated two times in the first section, and associated with words such as “sequence”, “blurs”, “Chinese painter”, “ink-stick”, “planned”, “exposed”, “foreground”. From the “hill-scene on an enormous continent”, the poet-narrator’s eyes, and through hers, the reader’s eyes, move slowly towards the “two human figures recklessly exposed, / leaning together in a sticklike boat / in the foreground.” So the painting, and thus the poem, bring before the reader’s eyes the immensity of a continent, of an infinite landscape, and guide him/her towards the minute details of two human figures. The metaphor of the painting extends through the whole poem and is, in my opinion, essential to its meaning and aim.
The initial description is however already tainted by disturbing, or at least unusual associations. The first word that follows the panoramic (and so, very general, the least intimate) view of the hill/continent is “intimacy”, even before the apparition of the human figures. This same word is associated with “terrors”. In the same manner, “desolation” is followed by “comforted”. And even then, when we are expecting an image of comfort and human warmth, all that we can find is the word “recklessly”. The two human figures are not brought together by intimate warmth, they are “recklessly exposed”. This series of antitheses, or at least antithetic ideas, set the background for an awkward and unreassuring reading of the poem. The picture that the poem is going to paint before our eyes is not going to be one of happiness and beauty.
It is also important to underline the cultural diversity of the artistic references. Besides the references to traditional Chinese painting mentioned above (and repeated in section 3), Rich refers to Käthe Kollwitz’s social-themed art in the last section. She also mentions “huts strung across a drought-stretched land” (section 1), which it would be too hasty and stereotypical to interpret as allusions to the African continent if the names of countries such as Chad, Niger, and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) weren’t mentioned a little further. The word “world” is also repeated several times in the poem. These references help give the poem a global aim and dimension. From the metaphor of painting, we can now shift towards one of photography, which will better serve our purpose. Indeed, the above-mentioned focussing effect can be compared to that of a camera’s. This idea is supported by the presence of words such as “fogged” and “film” in the first section. The whole poem then acquires a reporting and documentary dimension. It becomes a vivid testimony of the state the world is in. And of course testimony can mean exposure, and denunciation. The last picture trampled upon at the end of the poem is that of “a woman shield[ing] a dead child from the camera”. Thanks to the chiasmic construction of these last lines:
In the black mirror of the subway window
hangs my own face, hollow with anger and desire.
Swathed in exhaustion, on the trampled newsprint,
a woman shields a dead child from the camera,
her image gets mixed up with the narrator’s. It could get mixed up with that of any woman’s.