Margaret Atwood’s Poetry
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Civilization vs. Wilderness
Atwood constantly pits civilization against the wilderness surrounding it and society against the savagery from which it arose. She considers these oppositions to be some of the defining principles of Canadian literature. They also provide a metaphor for the divisions within the human personality. Society, civilization, and culture represent the rational, contained side of humanity, while the wild forest represents the very opposite: the irrational, primeval, and carnal impulses that exist in every living being. In The Animals in That Country, Atwood dramatizes the civilized urge to ignore the wildness lurking just over the horizon: in “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer,” she captures this theme with particular vividness: “In the darkness the fields / defend themselves with fences / in vain: / everything / is getting in.”
Atwood elaborates on the uselessness of defending oneself against the wilderness in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, an account of a European immigrant’s struggles to navigate the wildernesses of Canada, her adopted home. Almost every poem deals with this tension in some form. In “This is a photograph of me,” the serene natural setting presents a startling contrast to the human tragedy it masks. The glossy “[m]ountains and lakes and more lakes” depicted on the wall in “At the Tourist Centre in Boston” succeed only in reminding the viewer of the gritty reality beneath the pictures. In “Siren Song,” the jagged cliffs pulverize carefree sailors, who are in, but not fully of, nature. In “Postcards” and other poems of that era, cosmetic improvements to the natural world do little to mask the savagery that preceded human intervention. Landscapes in Atwood’s poems are harsh and brutal, wild and unconquerable, like the heart of darkness within all humans.
The Inevitability of Death
Atwood demonstrates a remarkable determination to confront death in her poetry. In “Another Elegy,” she asks: “Fine words, but why do I want / to tart up death?” No aspect of life occurs without some reminder of death. She is most interested in the decay of the body—or, as she cautions in “Circe/Mud Poems,” “this body is not reversible.” The historical poem “Marrying the Hangman” includes a related observation: “There is only a death, indefinitely postponed.” The body is enslaved to time and somehow disconnected from the person inside of it. “Time is what we’re doing,” Atwood writes in “Time.” In “Bedside,” she curses “the murderous body, the body / itself stalled in a field of ice.” Atwood confronts the inevitability of death most explicitly in the last section of another collection, Morning in the Burned House. “Man in a Glacier” echoes the themes of “Bedside,” as it literally represents a human body suspended in ice. “A Visit” mourns the passage of her father’s days of activity and lucidity. In “Flowers,” the speaker observes a dying father and realizes that she will undergo the same experience. Nothing can stop the relentless march of death.
In her poems, Atwood uses photographs to explore identity, particularly the facades women adopt to conform (at least superficially) to society. “This is a photograph of me,” the first poem in her first collection, plays with the conventional equation of appearance and reality. The photograph obscures, rather than reveals, the speaker’s mysterious identity and history. Similarly, the speaker of “In the Tourist Centre in Boston” reflects on the perceived discrepancy between photographic images of Canada and her own memories of the place. The speaker’s “private mirage” takes precedence over the glossy colorized certainties depicted in the photographs. In the poem “Girl and Horse, 1928,” from Procedures for Underground, the speaker contemplates an old photograph of a girl, “someone I never knew,” and tries to imagine what the girl was thinking. In the end of the poem, the speaker turns over the photograph, whereupon the girl waves and rides “out of sight.” Thus photographs are no longer static recorders of a fixed history in which “nothing can change, grow older.” Instead, photographs represent the truths a viewer chooses to invent. More than a decade later, in “Postcards,” Atwood describes a photograph only to comment on its inability to capture the realities of a place.
Traditionally a symbol of sexuality and wisdom, the figure of the snake pervades much of Atwood’s work. In the section of Interlunar dedicated exclusively to variations on the appearance of the snake, Atwood offers a bold reason for this recurring interest: “O snake,” she says in the first line of “Psalm to Snake,” “you are an argument / for poetry.” To Atwood, this slithering beast symbolizes the unseen forces driving the universe. According to the poem “Bad Mouth,” a snake is also “fanged,” carnivorous, and prone to “gorge on blood,” characteristics much in keeping with the violent worldview presented in much of Atwood’s poetry.
In “Eating Snake,” the speaker rejects the common comparison of the snake to the phallus (insisting on “two differences: / snake tastes like chicken, and who ever credited the prick with wisdom?”). In “She,” the poet dismisses the easy analogies (a whip, a rope, the phallus) and describes the snake as a far more complicated creature “with nothing in it but blood.” Atwood uses the masculine pronoun to describe this bloodthirsty creature, admitting in the last line that she does so out of habit. The poem ends with the line “It could be she,” suggesting that women are equally capable of predatory behavior. For a poet obsessed with the individual’s capacity for self-concealment, the snake’s “gradual shedding”—its regular trading of one skin for another—offers an exceptionally rich metaphor for human transformations, undertaken for survival or amusement.
Of the many symbols Atwood takes from the natural world, the moon is among the most malleable. Traditionally invoked as a female goddess, the moon offers a vehicle for Atwood’s interest in darkness and the brief illuminations that interrupt it. In her poetry, the moon can symbolize totality, mystery, menace, and oblivion. In “You Begin,” from Selected Poems II: 1976–1986 , a child’s mouth is compared to “an O or the moon.” In “A Red Shirt,” from Two-Headed Poems, she describes the male desire for woman to be “bloodless / as a moon on water.” In “Night Poem,” also from Two-Headed Poems, the moon becomes a “beige moon damp as a mushroom.” In “Mushrooms,” from True Stories, Atwood echoes this image in her description of mushrooms as “poisonous moons, pale yellow.” In the title poem from this collection, the ever-elusive nature of “truth” can only be approximated in list form, as “a moon, crumpled papers, a coin.” In “Landcrab I,” she speaks of “that dance / you do for the moon.”
The moon sees all but never comments. It is the silent, inscrutable, and probably an indifferent observer of the human comedy unfolding below. Atwood emphasizes this point in “Landcrab II,” in which the subject identifies itself as a “category, a noun / in a language not human, / infra-red in moonlight / a tidal wave in air.” In “Last Day,” Atwood writes, “Everything / leans into the pulpy moon,” suggesting the tug of this “pulpy,” murky object just beyond human reach. To Atwood, the moon symbolizes several layers of contradictions, the spirit of multiplicity and ambiguity that animates all her poetry. It is visible but mysterious, massive but ephemeral, cyclical but unpredictable. As she puts it in “Sunset II”: “Now there’s a moon, / an irony.” The moon can be anything the viewer decides it is, as in “Against Still Life,” when an “orange in the middle of the table” is transformed into, among other items, “an orange moon.” The moon is the proof of human subjectivity, “the reason for poetry.”
The Female Body
The female body represents servitude and entrapment, victimization and imprisonment—otherness as defined by a men. It is a battlefield of violence, as in the section “Torture” from “Notes Towards A Poem That Can Never Be Written,” from True Stories, in which the speaker describes a woman’s body as a “mute symbol” of grotesque weakness: “they sewed her face / shut, closed her mouth / to the size of a straw, / and put her back on the streets.” In another poem in this series, “A Woman’s Issue,” a young girl is “made to sing while they scrape the flesh / from between her legs, then tie her thighs / till she scabs over and is called healed.” The area between a woman’s legs is “enemy territory”; when violated, it is proof of man’s “uneasy power.” A woman’s body is the theater on which men’s brutal rituals are enacted, as they vie for supremacy.
The female body also demonstrates the unbreakable connection between the Earth and women, proof of a woman’s vulnerability and mortality. In “You Begin,” the speaker emphatically identifies the child’s hand to teach her that her body is ultimately her own. “Five Poems for Grandmothers” observes, sons “branch out, but / one woman leads to another.” While the female body can represent continuity, sensual pleasure, and self-reliance, in most of Atwood’s work, there is some disjunction between substance and spirit, between flesh and essence. In “The Woman Makes Peace With Her Faulty Heart,” the narrator characterizes a woman’s relationship to her body as an “uneasy truce, / and honor between criminals.”
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