Margaret Atwood’s Poetry

by: Margaret Atwood

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols

The Snake

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.

The Moon

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: 19761986, 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.”