Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I’d read at that time had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death—poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging.
This quotation comes from a speech Atwood delivered at Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in June 1995. Atwood’s poems deal with bloody themes—rape, murder, decay—that are impossible to lump into the “pastel female realm.” From the beginning of her career as a poet, Atwood seems to have been determined to eschew “embroidery and flower arranging” and all of the female complacency those activities implied. She set out to prove that even a diminutive Canadian girl could write about “slaughter, mayhem, sex and death,” and in this she has fully succeeded. As she points out, her favorite topics are violent and previously thought of as “masculine,” and she incorporates them into her poetry without making concessions to what may be expected of her as a woman writer.
There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
This quotation, from “In the Secular Night,” from Morning in the Burned House, is an example of the games that Atwood likes to play with language. The speaker paces her house alone and thinks back over her life, listening to the silence around her. She realizes that even when speaking and interacting with others, the same silence exists. Mere words cannot bridge it. The repetition of “you say” implies hollowness and suggests the emptiness of human beings mouthing meaningless phrases in empty houses at night. Still, this repetition suggests the inadequacy of their language does not stop humans from speaking or striving to cover up these silences with chatter. Nowhere do the failures of language become more evident than in the other person’s (the “you”) attempt to pin God down into a single tidy aphorism.
Atwood questions whether language can ever approximate concrete meanings and truths. If it can’t, she wonders, why one should bother writing at all? In the poem “Beauharnois,” an account of a civilian massacre in Quebec, Atwood offers a slightly different perspective:“A language is not words only,” she writes, “it is the stories / that are told in it, / the stories that are never told.” Part of language, then, is the human content that it communicates. Despite one’s best efforts, however, it is impossible to ever fully communicate this content.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This quotation, from “You Begin,” is Atwood’s attempt to clarify the connection and the gap between words and the things they signify. When trying to teach her daughter about her hand—and about the word hand—the speaker first reverts to simile: the meanings of words float by the child like a “cloud,” ephemeral, porous, and just out of reach. Her metaphor becomes more direct in the next line, in which she again identifies the distinction between the actual hand and the “word hand.” Here, in direct contrast to the previous image, language acts as an anchor, grounding the daughter’s understanding of reality into concrete and immediate experiences. In the last of the metaphors, Atwood attempts to eradicate the distinction between the hand and the “word hand”: the physical hand becomes a metaphor (“a warm stone”) but, at the same time, retains its status as a word (the stone rests inside “two words”). Atwood subtly comments on the way our experience of objects and bodies is always mediated by our ability to use language.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave
in the head, filling and pounding, a kicked ear.
These final lines from “Postcards” display many of the themes and techniques that characterize Atwood’s poetry. First, she writes of turning “you” over, willfully confusing the postcard with its intended recipient. The holiday-postcard sentiment “Wish you were / here” is broken into two lines, emphasizing the hollowness and emptiness of this manufactured sentiment. The metaphor that begins the final sentence of this quotation—“Love comes / in waves like the ocean”—illustrates Atwood’s tendency to conflate external and internal landscapes. In this case, the ocean is interesting only insofar as it can convey the speaker’s sense of isolation and her disappointment in love’s illusions. In the final image, Atwood links earlier topics with this ocean metaphor. Love is not simply a delusion like the postcard—it is painful and punitive. The last words of the poem, “a kicked ear,” internally rhyme with the false sentiment expressed earlier (“wish you were / here”), and they also echo the poem’s earlier description of the tortured prisoners.
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye
In “You fit into me,” what initially appears a conventional, even silly love poem quickly becomes dark and harrowing. Atwood overturns the expected definition of “hook and eye” and replaces it with an image of brutality and violence. Atwood frequently uses surprise in her poems. Here, she replaces a door-fastening device with the metal that punctures the flesh of the fish. She establishes very specific expectations and then gleefully tramples them. The power of this setup/letdown formula often hinges, as in this poem, on the multiple meanings of words. “You fit into me” succinctly captures Atwood’s interest in the mechanisms of language, the multiplicity of words, and the many layers of meanings.