The Ones Left Over

The last section of Selected Poems 1965-1975, “You are Happy” continues Atwood’s attempts to find happiness midst despair, though most of the time the sense of despair seems to dominate these poems. The irony of the title seems to say it all:

YOU ARE HAPPY

The water turns
a long way down over the raw stone,
ice crusts around it

We walk separately
along the hill to the open
beach, unused
picnic tables, wind
shoving the brown waves, erosion, gravel
rasping on gravel.

In the ditch a deer
carcass, no head. Bird
running across the glaring
road against the low pink sun.

When you are this
cold you can think about
nothing but the cold, the images

hitting into your eyes
like needles, crystals, you are happy.

Now, I’ve actually been exceedingly happy while cross-country skiing when my eyes felt exactly like this, but I don’t think this is what Atwood has in mind. Everything in this poem suggests the end of a relationship, or, at least, a growing alienation. This is not your typical romantic beach scene. The people “walk separately,” not hand-in-hand, as one might expect, accompanied by the sound of rocks grating on each other. And the image of the “dear” carcass without a head, is another dead giveaway this is no love poem. There is an emptiness here which even seems to deny the possibility of happiness. Perhaps the true indicator of the narrator’s alienation is the ending “you” “are happy,” not “we are happy.”

Many of the poems in this section focus on mythology, “Songs of the Transformed” told from the viewpoint of animals, and poems that seem centered around Odysseus, but told from an opposing viewpoint. While it is interesting to see a “fractured myth” told from a woman’s viewpoint, or, is it Circe’s viewpoint, my favorite poem in this sequence seems to summarize the poet’s view:

Men with the heads of eagles
no longer interest me
or pig-men, or those who can fly
with the aid of wax and feathers

or those who take off their clothes
to reveal other clothes
or those with skins of blue leather

or those golden and flat as a coat of arms
or those with claws, the stuffed ones
with glass eyes; or those
hierarchic as greaves and steam-engines.

All these I could create, manufacture,
or find easily: they swoop and thunder
around this island, common as flies,
sparks flashing, bumping into each other,

on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes.

I search instead for the others,
the ones left over,
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think
of themselves as
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.

There’s something comforting in the thought that this woman is searching for a “real” man, not a man trying to live out the heroic myths of the past or present. Most of us, even if we have not dreamed of becoming Achilles or Odysseus, a near impossibility in a world dominated by atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, have at least dreamed of being Icarus, of learning to transcend our mortal coils and launching ourselves into new frontiers.

Still, it’s here in the everyday world of personal relations that most of us end up working out our destiny, trying to be the best human we can be, all the time thinking that we should be more than we are, thinking we should be able to change the world for the better, thinking we’ve failed when we realize how little of an effect we have had on the world.

Despite the overall sense of alienation that dominates this last section of the book, there are moments of clarity that help us to cope with the problems that Atwood reveals. The book ends with a poem entitled “Book of Ancestors” that ends with the lines: “to take/that risk, to offer life and remain/alive, open yourself like this and become whole.”

Perhaps that's all the advice we need to be whole. Avoid the myths that the world would have you believe that you must follow. Open youself to the risk of truly giving yourself. Try to become whole by recognizing the pitfalls without giving up on life.

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