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:


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:


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.

2 thoughts on “Atwoods Selected Poems II”

  1. You wield poetry as a weapon cutting through political truths and other lies, Loren. These poems, and your commentary are, well, beyond my ability to respond to in words.

  2. I’m reminded of a quote I came across years ago (maybe from Gil Blaisie, writing about Rene Girard): “Retaliation is effective only if the goal is to prolong the violence.”

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