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.