Saturday, April 17, 2004

To See Clearly

Most people know Margaret Atwood for her fiction, Surfacing, Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake and others, enough to keep you busy reading for months. But did you know Atwood also writes poetry? Her poetry is as interesting and varied as her fiction and as thought-provoking. She is often political but rarely confessional. Her poems are not soft and lyrical, they are firm and solid. She takes subjects like feminism, war, or concern for the environment and brings them from the abstract concept to an everyday experience and understanding, a concrete vision and feeling. Take, for example, the poem "Against Still Life" from the book The Circle Game. The narrator is sitting at the kitchen table eating an orange, her lover sits across from her in silence

and you, man, orange afternoon lover, wherever you sit across from me (tables, trains, buses) if I watch quietly enough and long enough
at last, you will say (maybe without speaking)
(there are mountains inside your skull garden and chaos, ocean and hurricane; certain corners of rooms, portraits of great-grandmothers, curtains of a particular shade; your deserts; your private dinosaurs; the first woman)
all I need to know: tell me everything just as it was from the beginning.
Atwood frequently uses history, myth, literature and art as the jumping off place for a poem as in "Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein," "The Reincarnation of Captain Cook," the poem cycle "Circe/Mud Poems," "Marrying the Hangman" and "Letter from Persephone." You don't often find humor in Atwood's poems, so perhaps that is why of all of these types of poems I am partial to "Manet's Olympia" (picture here) from Morning in the Burned House:
She reclines, more or less. Try that posture, it's hardly languor. Her right arm sharp angles. With her left she conceals her ambush. Shoes but not stockings, how sinister. The flower behind her ear is naturally not real, of a piece with the sofa's drapery. The windows (if any) are shut. This is indoor sin. Above the head of the (clothed) maid is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.
But. Consider the body, unfragile, defiant, the pale nipples staring you right in the bull's-eye. Consider also the black ribbon around the neck. What's under it? A fine red threadline, where the head was taken off and glued back on. The body's on offer, but the neck's as far as it goes. This is no morsel. Put clothes on her and you'd have a schoolteacher, the kind with the brittle whiphand.
There's someone else in the room. You, Monsieur Voyeur. As for that object of yours she's seen those before, and better.
I, the head, am the only subject of this picture. You, Sir, are furniture. Get stuffed.
As a poet she is also concerned with words and language, whose language, whose words:
Translation was never possible. Instead there was always only conquest, the influx of the language of hard nouns, the language of metal, the language of either/or, the one language that has eaten all the others. ("Marsh Languages" from Morning in the Burned House)
She is concerned with how the words frame the world and make us who we are. She is concerned about the power of words and how we use them:
Our leader is a man of water with tinfoil skin.
He has two voices, therefore two heads, four eyes, two sets of genitals, eight arms and legs and forty toes and fingers. Our leader is a spider,
he traps words. They shrivel in his mouth, he leaves the skins.
Most leaders speak for themselves, then for the people.
Who does our leader speak for? How can you use two languages and mean what you say in both?
No wonder our leader skuttles sideways, melts in hot weather, corrodes in the sea, reflects light like a mirror, splits our faces, our wishes, is bitter.
Our leader is a monster sewn from dead soldiers, a Siamese twin.
Why should we complain? He is ours and us, we made him. ("Two-Headed Poems, vii" from Two-Headed Poems)
Margaret Atwood's poems sometimes move me to rage and move me to tears. Sometimes after I finish one I see the world a little differently. I think part five of "Notes Toward a Poem That Can Never Be Written" (True Stories) sums up the core of her poetic outpouring and maybe even her body of work, and is, I think, part of what makes her one of our best living writers:
The facts of this world seen clearly are seen through tears; why tell me then there is something wrong with my eyes?
To see clearly and without flinching, without turning away, this is agony, the eyes taped open two inches from the sun.
What is it you see then? Is it a bad dream, a hallucination? Is it a vision? What is it you hear?
The razor across the eyeball is a detail from an old film. It is also a truth. Witness is what you must bear.