Atwoods Selected Poems II

I’ve started reading Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 197-1986. While I’m a little turned off by how many of the poems are seen through a decidedly feminist perspective, it’s impossible to deny the power of many of her best poems. Perhaps the war in Iraq has made me more sensitive to certain poems, but my favorite poems in the section entitled “From Two-Headed Poems:1978” are found in a selection entitled “Four Small Elegies (1838, 1977),” particularly sections I and II.

The sense of moral superiority currently being displayed by some of our neighboring bloggers to the North may well have influenced my choice of these poems for the poems must be read in light of this endnote, at least for those of us unfamiliar with Canadian history:


NOTE: After the failure of the uprising in Lower Canada (now Québec) in 1838, the British army and an assortment of volunteers carried out reprisals against the civilian population around Beauharnois, burning houses and barns and turning the inhabitants out into the snow. No one was allowed to give them shelter and many froze to death. The men were arrested as rebels; those who were not home were presumed to be rebels and their houses were burned.

The volunteers from Glengarry were Scots, most of them in Canada because their houses had also been burned during the Highland Clearances, an aftermath of the British victory at Culloden. Dufferin, Simcoe, and Grey are the names of three counties in Ontario, settled around this period.

The first elegy is devoted to the women who were turned out into the snow after their houses were burned:

BEAUHARNOIS

The bronze clock brought
with such care over the sea,
which ticked like the fat slow heart
of a cedar, of a grandmother,
melted and its hundred years
of time ran over the ice and froze there.

We are fixed by this frozen clock
at the edge of the winter forest.
Ten below zero.
Shouts in a foreign language
come down blue snow.

The women in their thin nightgowns
disappear wordlessly among the trees.
Here and there a shape,
a limp cloth bundle, a child
who could not keep up
lies sprawled face down in a drift
near the trampled clearing.

No one could give them clothes or shelter,
these were the orders.

We didn't hurt them, the man said,
we didn't touch them.

The startling images of the heirloom clock frozen in time, of women, ghost-like floating through the trees in their nightgowns, and, most of all, of the “limp cloth bundle” that turns out to be frozen child who could not keep up with his mother stand in sharp contrast to the startling truth that ends the poem, “we didn’t hurt them, the man said,/ we didn’t touch them.” Sounds remarkably similar to the half truths we often hear in modern war doesn’t it? Remind anyone else of Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Although this first poem is the most moving of the four, the second poem in the sequence is, at least to me, the most chilling:

II BEAUHARNOIS, GLENGARRY

Those whose houses were burned
burned houses. What else ever happens
once you start?

While the roofs plunged
into the root-filled cellars,
they chased ducks, chickens, anything
they could catch, clubbed their heads
on rock, spitted them, singed off the feathers
in fires of blazing fences,
ate them in handfuls, charred
and bloody.

Sitting in the snow
in those mended plaids, rubbing their numb feet,
eating soot, still hungry,
they watched the houses die like
sunsets, like their own
houses. Again

those who gave the orders
were already somewhere else,
of course on horseback.

The line “What else ever happens/ once you start” reminds one of far too many historical events doesn’t it? Because it’s the English involved in this poem, it’s hard not to think of Ireland, at least for me. Of course, it immediately calls forth images of tanks bulldozing homes in Israel followed by explosions in outdoor markets. Unfortunately, at the moment it makes me think of luminescent green images of Baghdad explosions.

Even more haunting than this is the image that closes the poem, the idea that it’s the ruling class that provokes the violence while at the same time somehow standing above and beyond it.

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.

You Fit into Me like a Hook into the Eye

I’ll have to admit I was prepared to dislike the poems in the section entitled “Power Politics” because of the lines on the opening page which read: “you fit into me/ like a hook in the eye” and “a fish hook/an open eye.”

Now I know there’s more than enough despair to go around, and there’s more than enough causes for it, but I’m just not willing to wallow in it. Recognize it, naturally. Deal with it, hopefully. Just don't wallow. No use giving it more than its due. The older I grow, the more I realize despair is an inevitable part of life, just a part that I don’t have time to dwell on at the moment. My goal is transcendence, not despair. And transcendence seems a hell of a lot harder to attain than wallowing. That’s why I need all the help I can get from what I read.

Luckily, I did find myself admiring much of what was written here. The brutal honesty is refreshing and not overwhelming in a poem like:

After all you are quite
ordinary: 2 arms 2 legs
a head, a reasonable
body, toes & fingers, a few
eccentricities, a few honesties
but not too many, too many
postponements & regrets but

you'll adjust to it, meeting
deadlines and other
people, pretending to love
the wrong woman some of the
time, listening to your brain
shrink, your diaries
expanding as you grow older,


growing older. 0f course you'll
die but not yet, you'll outlive
even my distortions of you

and there isn't anything
I want to do about the fact
that you are unhappy & sick


you aren't sick & unhappy
only alive & stuck with it.

I particularly liked, “only alive & stuck with it.” Sounds like you and me, doesn’t it? That’s what we are. Not sick, just unhappy, and unhappy sounds like a temporary state to me. The conclusion sounds all the more convincing because the poet’s analysis of the problem seems accurate, too. I particularly liked “a few honesties/but not too many” because all of us try to be honest with ourselves, but too few of us end up being truly honest with ourselves because it’s just too damn difficult. I like to think writing this blog helps prevent it, but I know some people who seem to fit the line “listening to your brain shrink.”

Perhaps the next poem was actually written as a warning to bloggers, particularly to bloggers who seem all too willing to follow a “party line” and refuse to think for themselves:

You refuse to own
yourself, you permit
others to do it for you:

you become slowly more public,
in a year there will be nothing left
of you but a megaphone

or you will descend through the roof
with the spurious authority of a
government official,
blue as a policeman, grey as a used angel,
having long forgotten the difference
between an annunciation and a parking ticket

or you will be slipped under
the door, your skin furred with cancelled
airmail stamps, your kiss no longer literature
but fine print, a set of instructions.

If you deny these uniforms
and choose to repossess
yourself, your future

will be less dignified, more painful, death will be sooner,
(it is no longer possible
to be both human and alive) : lying piled with
the others, your face and body
covered so thickly with scars
only the eyes show through.

Just kidding, of course, no bloggers around in 1971 when this was published. It’s obviously about the poet herself and her worries that as a you become famous, a public figure, you end up losing part of your control over your own destiny. The “megaphone” is the perfect symbol of someone who makes things sound important, sound louder, but really has not control over what is said. Obviously the danger is even greater if you are seen merely as part of the “establishment,” as an “official.” Of course, if you refuse to do these things, you’re less likely to be accepted and honored, less likely to make money from your work. The scariest line in the poem, though, is “it is no longer possible to be both human and alive,” though I’m not exactly sure what she means by “human.” Will the scarring kill you? Isn’t this just the same as “you aren't sick & unhappy/only alive & stuck with it.” Isn’t scarring part of being human, part of being alive?

After reading this section of emotionally disturbing, but moving, poems, I was ready for the following poem:

Beyond truth,
tenacity: of those
dwarf trees & mosses,
hooked into straight rock
believing the sun's lies & thus
refuting / gravity

& of this cactus, gathering
itself together
against the sand, yes tough
rind & spikes but doing
the best it can

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Perhaps it is, indeed, tenacity and not the mere knowledge of truth that makes us truly human. The poems in this section surely contain their own “truth,” a truth that you can only deny at your own peril, but this truth is not the be-all-and-end-all of life. There is another kind of truth that also exists, the truth of those who endure and overcome the “truth” that others would impose on them.

Where do the Words Go?

The title for this section, which comes from the poem “Procedures for Underground,” suggests that you can learn “wisdom and great power” from the “underground” but that “for this gift, as for all gifts you must suffer” for you will always hear the dead whispering to you. And certainly many, though not all, of the poems seem to deal with memories of the past and death.

My favorite of these poems deals more with the loss of the past and how we deal with that loss rather than death itself:

THE SMALL CABIN

The house we built gradually
from the ground up when we were young
(three rooms, the walls
raw trees) burned down
last year they said

I didn't see it, and so
the house is still there in me

among branches as always I stand
inside it looking out
at the rain moving across the lake

but when I go back
to the empty place in the forest
the house will blaze and crumple
suddenly in my mind

collapsing like a cardboard carton
thrown on a bonfire, summers
crackling, my earlier
selves outlined in flame.

Left in my head will be
the blackened earth: the truth.

Where did the house go?

Where do the words go
when we have said them?

For those that have been following this blog, much of what I’ve been trying to do is to look back on the past, come to terms with it, and use it to make what’s left of my life more meaningful. This poem deals beautifully with precisely some of the questions I’ve been facing in looking back.

For instance, the lines “I didn't see it, and so/the house is still there in me” reminds me exactly of the way I feel about events that have happened in my life and places I’ve been. Is the truth what I remember, or is the truth what has happened since, something I often have little awareness of. Is Walnut Creek California still that sleepy little bedroom community that I lived in where Stan’s Brickhouse was the main attraction? Does the fact that it must have changed make a difference? If I go back, will I suddenly see massive growth and change?

But, most of all, I like the lines, “Where do the words go/when we have said them?” Do words have a life of their own? What happened to the words I offered students for many years? Did they just disappear, or do they have a life of their own? Do they live on in the minds of others, and, if they do, do they mean what I meant when I said them? What happens to the words in this blog? Do they make anyone see the world in a different way or motivate them to change their lives or their world? Will my grandchildren ever read them and see me in a different way? Or, will they disappear in flash, victim of a hard drive crash? Electronic particles randomly dispersed in a random universe?

My other favorite poem in this section seems atypical rather than typical of the poems in this section:

CYCLOPS

You, going along the path,
mosquito-doped, with no moon, the flashlight
a single orange eye

unable to see what is beyond
the capsule of your dim
sight, what shape

contracts to a heart
with terror, bumps
among the leaves, what makes
a bristling noise like a fur throat
Is it true you do not wish to hurt them?

Is it true you have no fear?
Take off your shoes then,
let your eyes go bare,
swim in their darkness as in a river

do not disguise
yourself in armour.

They watch you from hiding:
you are a chemical
smell, a cold fire, you are
giant and indefinable

In their monstrous night
thick with possible claws
where danger is not knowing,
you are the hugest monster.

This poem reminds me of myself when I’m roaming around at night in the wilderness with my handy, hi-tech headlight strapped to my forehead to free my hands to wash the pots and pans or deal with any monsters that might lurk at the edges of the campsite.

This, or course, seems like the natural thing to do. How else are you going to see the animals that inhabit the night, waiting to ambush you given half a chance?

Of course, I’m out there precisely to experience the wilderness, and what’s a wilderness without animals? Her advice here reminds me of Faulkner’s advice in “The Bear,” where the boy has to rid himself of man’s tools to truly experience the woods and to finally confront the bear. I suspect most of us would be terrified to confront the wilderness on its own terms without our high-tech gear.

The image of a one-eyed monster seems particularly apt. It is what you physically look like while using a headlamp, and you must, indeed, appear as a monster to most of the animals out waiting in the darkness.

It Takes Life to Love Life

The section of poems entitled “The Journals of Susanna Moodie” would by themselves justify the purchase of Selected Poems 1965-1975. It is based on the life of a famous, to Canadians at least, Canadian pioneer woman() who wrote poetry among other works.

Perhaps that is why the poems in this section remind me so much of Edgar Lee Masters’ masterpiece “Lucinda Matlock,” which succinctly describes the simple life of a woman from an earlier time and challenges the modern reader to be as tough as she was, to not complain about life, and to live life to its fullest.

Margaret Atwood unflinchingly looks at life though the eyes of Susanna Moodie, a pioneer woman who did seem to live life to the fullest when many others crumbled under the circumstances. The poem “The Double Voice” presents the two sides of Susanna Moodie shown in this section:

THE DOUBLE VOICE

Two voices
took turns using my eyes:

One had manners,
painted in watercolours,
used hushed tones when speaking
of mountains or Niagara Falls,
composed uplifting verse
and expended sentiment upon the poor.

The other voice
had other knowledge:
that men sweat
always and drink often,
that pigs are pigs
but must be eaten
anyway, that unborn babies
fester like wounds in the body,
that there is nothing to be done
about mosquitoes;

One saw through my
bleared and gradually
bleaching eyes, red leaves,
the rituals of seasons and rivers

The other found a dead dog
jubilant with maggots
half-buried among the sweet peas.

The remarkable thing, of course, is that, as “civilized” men and women we want to forget, we, too, have these two sides. Hopefully, we all have the cultural side that seeks out plays, novels, poems, or paintings to satisfy one aspect of our soul. However, we also have to recognize what is sometimes referred to as the “dark side,” but also might justifiably be referred to simply as the “tough side,” the side that allows us to survive in a hard world where our children die before us and men are broken by the hardships and demands of life.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that in a world that demanded such toughness to survive, Susanna Moodie found the time and made the effort to create works of art, to preserve the beauty that seems to be as much a part of the human soul as the desire to survive itself.

There are many poems in this section worth discussing and quoting, but I found “Charivari” the most moving, and it fits well with the ideas discussed in the poem cited above:

CHARIVARI

'They capped their heads with feathers, masked
their faces, wore their clothes backwards, howled
with torches through the midnight winter

and dragged the black man from his house
to the jolting music of broken
instruments, pretending to each other


it was a joke, until
they killed him. I don't know
what happened to the white bride.'


The American lady, adding she
thought it was a disgraceful piece
of business, finished her tea.


(Note: Never pretend this isn't
part of the soil too, tea drinkers, and inadvertent
victims and murderers, when we come this way


again in other forms, take care
to look behind, within
where the skeleton face beneath

the face puts on its feather mask, the arm
within the arm lifts up the spear:
Resist those cracked
drumbeats. Stop this. Become human.)

This poem which starts with what appears to be a shivaree, a celebration of marriage in good fun, suddenly and dramatically turns into a display of racism at its worst. These men aren’t just dressed in “savage” costumes, they are savages, of the worst kind. They kill a man because he crosses the color line, in a country American blacks fled to because it wasn’t supposed to have a color line. The image of “jolting music of broken instruments” beautifully conveys the breakdown of “civilization,” the proper accompaniment for a lynching. The subtlety of the next line, the one that reveals the racial motive, “I don't know what happened to the white bride” is nearly as dramatic as the juxtaposed image of the American lady ironically engaged in the British habit of drinking tea commenting that it was “a disgraceful piece of business.”

The poem serves as a reminder that this violence is a part of heritage, perhaps part of our very nature, and we have to work to resist “those cracked drumbeats” of our savage forefathers. Until we do, we cannot become fully “human.”

We like to believe that we are “civilized,” that we see life through the same eyes as the artist or the creator, but unless we are conscious of our true nature we end up joining in a riot celebrating a football victory or a drinking party gone wrong. Worst of all, we allow racism to justify blowing up a wedding party of Israelis or we kill an innocent Arab at a gas station because they killed our people September 11th.

“Stop this. Become human.” Perhaps that’s all you can really say.

Slowly Plodding Toward Extinction

The second section in Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems 1965-1975 entitled “from The Animals in That Country” focuses more on her Canadian background than the first section. One theme is that of Canada as wilderness. The title poem begins with the stanza “In that country the animals/ have the faces of people” and ends with “In this country the animals/ have the faces of/animals” suggesting that Canada still has room for wild animals, unlike most modern countries. In “At the Tourist Centre in Boston,” (Do you really think the people in Boston can’t spell Center correctly?) she objects to the mythic country portrayed to Americans to attract them to Canada. Not being Canadian, I wasn’t particularly attracted by this theme, but, having traveled there extensively, I do understand their resentment of America.

My favorite long poem is called “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” for it seems to describe mankind, not just a pioneer, quite accurately. It begins, “He stood, a point/ on a sheet of green paper/ proclaiming himself the centre.” Of course, this is the way a pioneer must begin, but it also sounds a lot like our description of ourselves as we think of ourselves as the center of the universe and everything must surely revolve around us! The fifth stanza begins, “For many years/ he fished for a great vision,/ dangling the hooks of sown/ roots under the surface/ of the shallow earth./ It was like/enticing whales with a bent/ pin.” The poem concludes, “… the green/ vision, the unnamed/ whale invaded? In this case, the pioneer, like so many others, was defeated by the power of nature. Since we are obviously well beyond that stage, I wonder what “stage of insanities” we must be at, and whether by destroying nature we are not truly defeating ourselves.

My favorite poem in this section also deals with this theme. It’s called “Elegy for the Giant Tortoises:”

Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can't quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave travelling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralysed
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

The poem is an elegy, and an elegy is usually a “lament for somebody who has died,” but as far as I know the giant tortoises aren’t yet extinct, though they may well be headed that way as she envisions in this poem. Certainly “on the last day” they will be obsolete and that “event” seems to shape her vision of what will happen.

The imagery she chooses, “plodding,” “small heads pondering/ from side to side” and their “useless armour” makes us see the giant tortoises as they head to some unknown destination, which in this case, unfortunately, turns out to be a museum.

For me, there is both great sadness and great irony in the last part of the poem. On first seeing the “square glass altars” you have the feeling that these magnificent animals are going to being honored, as they should be, but you quickly realize that these ”altars” are really nothing but museum displays, the kind I discussed seeing in San Francisco’s Museum when I was but a small child.

We put them on pedestals, like holy symbols when they’re dead, but they are no longer symbols of living animals. They are dead, and thus, “obsolete,” a brittle, relic of a past that we used to claim was holy but one we are steadily destroying through our attempts to conquer nature.

Hoping the Circles are Gyres

Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems 1965-1975 begins with a section entitled “from The Circle Game.” Not surprisingly, the dominant symbol in this section is the “circle,” a complex symbol that seems to have at least two distinct meanings for her. First, as used in the title poem, it seems to represent community, a group of children holding hands while going round and round. Second, as used in “A PLACE: FRAGMENTS” it seems to represent an inner unity that gives meaning to life. And, of course, these two definitions are interlinked.

While the title poem is a little too diffuse for my taste, I do like many of the images and lines in it. Her use of the image of children playing merry-go-round goes beyond the mundane when she states “We might mistake this/tranced moving for joy/but there is no joy in it” and “the whole point/for them/of going round and round/ is (faster/slower)/going round and round.”

I can certainly identify with this image of an activity that is supposed to be fun but ends up merely being another way of going round and round meaninglessly. She extends this symbol to an old fort and asks, “Why is it…that in this time, such/ elaborate defences keep/ things that are no longer/ (much) /worth defending.” It is hard to let down our defenses to others, even when the secrets no longer seem very important. From here, it’s only a short step to the description of someone significant in her life who is “…glad/ to be left/ out by himself/in the cold/ (hugging himself). Being a manly man, and an introvert, I can certainly identify with that image. Luckily, though, I’m also sensitive enough to identify with the ending lines of the poem, “and as we lie/ here, caught/in the monotony of wandering/ from room to room, shifting/ the places of our defences” … “I want the circle/ broken.” I love the subtle placement of “lie” at the end of the line to suggest the kinds of defences that people use with loved ones to protect that inner self.

Although I prefer sections of the longer poems to any single poem that appears in this section of the book, “Journey to the Interior” suggests one of the major themes in this section of the book:

JOURNEY TO THE INTERIOR

There are similarities
I notice: that the hills
which the eyes make flat as a wall, welded
together, open as I move
to let me through; become
endless as prairies; that the trees
grow spindly, have their roots
often in swamps; that this is a poor country;
that a cliff is not known
as rough except by hand, and is
therefore inaccessible. Mostly
that travel is not the easy going

from point to point, a dotted
line on a map, location
plotted on a square surface
but that I move surrounded by a tangle
of branches, a net of air and alternate
light and dark, at all times;
that there are no destinations
apart from this.


There are differences
of course: the lack of reliable charts;
more important, the distraction of small details:
your shoe among the brambles under the chair
where it shouldn't be; lucent
white mushrooms and a paring knife
on the kitchen table; a sentence
crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log
I'm sure I passed yesterday

(have l been
walking in circles again?)


but mostly the danger:
many have been here, but only
some have returned safely.


A compass is useless; also
trying to take directions
from the movements of the sun,
which are erratic;
and words here are as pointless
as calling in a vacant wilderness.

Whatever I do I must
keep my head. I know
it is easier for me to lose my way
forever here, than in other landscapes

I generally prefer a sharper focus than this in poems, but I find the overall metaphor interesting, and this sounds a lot like the trip all of us must take. Most of us that have started the trip would agree that “travel is not the easy going/from point to point” kind of travel. I particularly liked “a sentence/ crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log/ I'm sure I passed yesterday” for I find those kinds of sentences all the time in my writing, especially when looking in past journals. Atwood even manages to give another meaning to circles in the line “(have l been / walking in circles again?). Certainly we would agree that it is easier “to lose my way/forever here, than in other landscapes.”

Atwood seems to come as close to “breaking the circle” in part seven of “A Place: Fragments” as she does anywhere else in this selection of poems:

from A PLACE: FRAGMENTS
vii

An other sense tugs at us:
we have lost something,
some key to these things
which must be writings
and are locked against us
or perhaps (like a potential
mine, unknown vein
of metal in the rock)
something not lost or hidden
but just not found yet


that informs,
holds together this confusion,
this largeness and dissolving:


not above or behind
or within it, but one
with it: an


identity:
something too huge and simple
for us to see.

The reason the people in the circle go nowhere is likely because they don’t understand themselves enough to ever break out of that circle. Without this understanding, they are incapable of conquering that feeling that life is just going round and round in endless circles.

How can you have a sense of direction if you don’t know who you are and what you want? Of course, it’s easier to sense that this “key” is missing than it is to find it. Perhaps, Atwood will give more clues to its location in later sections of the book. I’ll keep looking for it there for the next few days.

Loren Webster