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.