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