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Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written


by Margaret Atwood 1. This is the place you would rather not know about This is the place that will inhabit you This is the place you cannot imagine This is the place that will finally defeat you where the word why shrivels and empties itself. This is famine. 2. There is no poem you can write about it, the sandpits where so many were buried & unearthed, the unendurable pain still traced on their skins. e make wreaths of ad!ectives for them, we count them like beads, we turn them into statistics and litanies and into poems like this one. "othing works, They remain what they are. #. The woman lies on the wet cement floor under the unending light, needle marks on her arms put there to kill the brain and wonders why she is dying $he is dying because she said. $he is dying for the sake of the word. %t is her body, silent and fingerless, writing this poem. &. %t resembles an operation but it is not one nor despite the spread legs, grunts & blood, is it a birth. 'artly, it(s a !ob

2 partly it(s a display of skill like a concerto. %t can be done badly or well, they tell themselves. 'artly, it(s an art. ). The facts of this world seen clearly are seen through tears* why tell me then there is something wrong with my eyes+ To see clearly and without flinching, without turning away, this is agony, the eyes taped open two inches from the sun. hat is it you see then+ %s it a bad dream, a hallucination+ %s it a vision+ hat is it you hear+ The ra,or across the eyeball is a detail from an old film. %t is also a truth. itness is what you must bear. -. %n this country you can say what you like because no one will listen to you anyway, it(s safe enough, in this country you can try to write the poem that can never be written, the poem that invents nothing and e.cuses nothing, because you invent and e.cuse yourself each day. /lsewhere, this poem is not invention. /lsewhere, this poem takes courage. /lsewhere, this poem must be written because the poets are already dead. /lsewhere, this poem must be written as if you are already dead, as if nothing more can be done or said to save you. /lsewhere you must write this poem because the is nothing more to do.

3 0000000000000000.. Sandpit: A large pit in sandy ground from which sand is dug; A plaything consisting of a pile of sand or a box filled with sand for children to play in Litany: A prayer consisting of a series of invocations by the priest with responses from the congregation. Concerto: A composition for orchestra and a soloist Tape: A long thin piece of cloth or paper as used for binding or fastening; Fasten or attach with tape; ecord on videotape; egister electronically Razor: !dge tool used in shaving Elsewhere: "n or to another place
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Themes/ Civilization vs. Wilderness Atwood constantly pits civili,ation against the wilderness surrounding it and society against the savagery from which it arose. $he considers these oppositions to be some of the defining principles of 1anadian literature. They also provide a metaphor for the divisions within the human personality. $ociety, civili,ation, and culture represent the rational, contained side of humanity, while the wild forest represents the very opposite2 the irrational, primeval, and carnal impulses that e.ist in every living being. %n The Animals in That Country, Atwood dramati,es the civili,ed urge to ignore the wildness lurking !ust over the hori,on2 in 3'rogressive %nsanities of a 'ioneer,4 she captures this theme with particular vividness2 3%n the darkness the fields 5 defend themselves with fences 5 in vain2 5 everything 5 is getting in.4 Atwood elaborates on the uselessness of defending oneself against the wilderness in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, an account of a /uropean immigrant6s struggles to navigate the wildernesses of 1anada, her adopted home. Almost every poem deals with this tension in some form. %n 3This is a photograph of me,4 the serene natural setting presents a startling contrast to the human tragedy it masks. The glossy 37m8ountains and lakes and more lakes4 depicted on the wall in 3At the Tourist 1entre in 9oston4 succeed only in reminding the viewer of the gritty reality beneath the pictures. %n 3$iren $ong,4 the !agged cliffs pulveri,e carefree sailors, who are in, but not fully of, nature. %n 3'ostcards4 and other poems of that era, cosmetic improvements to the natural world do little to mask the savagery that preceded human intervention. :andscapes in Atwood6s poems are harsh and brutal, wild and uncon;uerable, like the heart of darkness within all humans. The Inevitability of eath Atwood demonstrates a remarkable determination to confront death in her poetry. %n 3Another /legy,4 she asks2 3<ine words, but why do % want 5 to tart up death+4 "o aspect of life occurs without some reminder of death. $he is most interested in the decay of the body=or, as she cautions in 31irce5Mud 'oems,4 3this body is not reversible.4 The historical poem 3Marrying the >angman4 includes a related observation2 3There is only a death, indefinitely postponed.4 The body is enslaved to time and somehow disconnected from the person inside of it. 3Time is what we6re doing,4 Atwood writes in 3Time.4 %n 39edside,4 she curses 3the murderous body, the body 5 itself stalled in a field of ice.4 Atwood confronts the inevitability of death most e.plicitly in the last section of another collection, Morning in the Burned House. 3Man in a ?lacier4 echoes the themes of 39edside,4 as it literally represents a human body suspended in ice. 3A @isit4 mourns the passage of her father6s days of activity and lucidity. %n 3<lowers,4 the speaker observes a dying father and reali,es that she will undergo the same e.perience. "othing can stop the relentless march of death. Motifs / Photo!ra"hs %n her poems, Atwood uses photographs to e.plore identity, particularly the facades women adopt to conform Aat least superficiallyB to society. 3This is a photograph of me,4 the first poem in her first collection, plays with the conventional e;uation of appearance and reality. The photograph obscures, rather than reveals, the speaker6s mysterious identity and history. $imilarly, the speaker of 3%n the Tourist 1entre in 9oston4 reflects on the perceived discrepancy between photographic images of 1anada and her own memories of the place. The speaker6s 3private

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mirage4 takes precedence over the glossy colori,ed certainties depicted in the photographs. %n the poem 3?irl and >orse, 1C2D,4 from Procedures for Underground, the speaker contemplates an old photograph of a girl, 3someone % never knew,4 and tries to imagine what the girl was thinking. %n the end of the poem, the speaker turns over the photograph, whereupon the girl waves and rides 3out of sight.4 Thus photographs are no longer static recorders of a fi.ed history in which 3nothing can change, grow older.4 %nstead, photographs represent the truths a viewer chooses to invent. More than a decade later, in 3'ostcards,4 Atwood describes a photograph only to comment on its inability to capture the realities of a place. Symbols / The Sna#e Traditionally a symbol of se.uality and wisdom, the figure of the snake pervades much of Atwood6s work. %n the section of Interlunar dedicated e.clusively to variations on the appearance of the snake, Atwood offers a bold reason for this recurring interest2 3E snake,4 she says in the first line of 3'salm to $nake,4 3you are an argument 5 for poetry.4 To Atwood, this slithering beast symboli,es the unseen forces driving the universe. According to the poem 39ad Mouth,4 a snake is also 3fanged,4 carnivorous, and prone to 3gorge on blood,4 characteristics much in keeping with the violent worldview presented in much of Atwood6s poetry. %n 3/ating $nake,4 the speaker re!ects the common comparison of the snake to the phallus Ainsisting on 3two differences2 5 snake tastes like chicken, and who ever credited the prick with wisdom+4B. %n 3$he,4 the poet dismisses the easy analogies Aa whip, a rope, the phallusB and describes the snake as a far more complicated creature 3with nothing in it but blood.4 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 3%t could be she,4 suggesting that women are e;ually capable of predatory behavior. <or a poet obsessed with the individual6s capacity for selfFconcealment, the snake6s 3gradual shedding4=its regular trading of one skin for another=offers an e.ceptionally rich metaphor for human transformations, undertaken for survival or amusement. The Moon Ef 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 Atwood6s interest in darkness and the brief illuminations that interrupt it. %n her poetry, the moon can symboli,e totality, mystery, menace, and oblivion. %n 3Gou 9egin,4 from Selected Poems II: 1 !"#1 $" , a child6s mouth is compared to 3an E or the moon.4 %n 3A Hed $hirt,4 from T%o&Headed Poems, she describes the male desire for woman to be 3bloodless 5 as a moon on water.4 %n 3"ight 'oem,4 also from T%o&Headed Poems, the moon becomes a 3beige moon damp as a mushroom.4 %n 3Mushrooms,4 from True Stories, Atwood echoes this image in her description of mushrooms as 3poisonous moons, pale yellow.4 %n the title poem from this collection, the everFelusive nature of 3truth4 can only be appro.imated in list form, as 3a moon, crumpled papers, a coin.4 %n 3:andcrab %,4 she speaks of 3that dance 5 you do for the moon.4 The moon sees all but never comments. %t is the silent, inscrutable, and probably an indifferent observer of the human comedy unfolding below. Atwood emphasi,es this point in 3:andcrab %%,4 in which the sub!ect identifies itself as a 3category, a noun 5 in a language not human, 5 infraFred in moonlight 5 a tidal wave in air.4 %n 3:ast Iay,4 Atwood writes, 3/verything 5 leans into the pulpy moon,4 suggesting the tug of this 3pulpy,4 murky ob!ect !ust beyond human reach. To Atwood, the moon symboli,es several layers of contradictions, the spirit of multiplicity and ambiguity that animates all her poetry. %t is visible but mysterious, massive but ephemeral, cyclical but unpredictable. As she puts it in 3$unset %%42 3"ow there6s a moon, 5 an irony.4 The moon can be anything the viewer decides it is, as in 3Against $till :ife,4 when an 3orange in the middle of the table4 is transformed into, among other items, 3an orange moon.4 The moon is the proof of human sub!ectivity, 3the reason for poetry.4 The $emale Body The female body represents servitude and entrapment, victimi,ation and imprisonment=otherness as defined by a men. %t is a battlefield of violence, as in the section 3Torture4 from 3"otes Towards A 'oem That 1an "ever 9e ritten,4 from True Stories, in which the speaker describes a woman6s body as a 3mute symbol4 of grotes;ue weakness2 3they sewed her face 5 shut, closed her mouth 5 to the si,e of a straw, 5 and put her back on the streets.4 %n another poem in this series, 3A oman6s %ssue,4 a young girl is 3made to sing while they scrape the flesh 5 from between her legs, then tie her thighs 5 till she scabs over and is called healed.4 The area between a woman6s legs is 3enemy territory4* when violated, it is proof of man6s 3uneasy power.4 A woman6s body is the theater on which men6s brutal rituals are enacted, as they vie for supremacy. The female body also demonstrates the unbreakable connection between the /arth and women, proof of a woman6s vulnerability and mortality. %n 3Gou 9egin,4 the speaker emphatically identifies the child6s hand to teach her that her

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body is ultimately her own. 3<ive 'oems for ?randmothers4 observes, sons 3branch out, but 5 one woman leads to another.4 hile the female body can represent continuity, sensual pleasure, and selfFreliance, in most of Atwood6s work, there is some dis!unction between substance and spirit, between flesh and essence. %n 3The oman Makes 'eace ith >er <aulty >eart,4 the narrator characteri,es a woman6s relationship to her body as an 3uneasy truce, 5 and honor between criminals.4

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