Knock, knock: Is the real Atwood still there?

p. *[_Excerpt from_] Feature Review*
bq. Margaret Atwood. [_The Door_]. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart (2007).
If there’s a Canadian poem readers know by heart, chances are it’s Margaret Atwood’s four-liner “You Fit into Me”. A quick start: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye.” A quicker ending: “A fish hook / an open eye.” As short lyrics go, it’s flawless: perfectly judged and perfectly ruthless.
“You Fit into Me” was published in 1971, and its sting is a fair example of Atwood’s method at the time. The lovey-dovey snugness we associate with hooks and eyes is exactly the conditioned response she uses to draw blood. But you really have to go back to the late sixties and mid-seventies–when her fish hooks were at their sharpest–to understand why she caused such a stir when she came on the scene. _The Circle Game_ appeared in 1966 looking more or less like any other slim mid-century debut. But the differences were important. Daughter of an entomologist and student of Northrop Frye, Atwood fronted a poetry whose soundings of female consciousness were forensic and archetype-obsessed. She was, at heart, a young poet with an unstoppable knack (six books in the eight years from 1966 and 1974) for writing striking descriptions of extreme emotional states. Some of it recalled Anne Wilkinson, who also overhauled romantic emblems and came to conclusions that, for their time, were just as unflinching (“I’d love this body more / If graved in rigid wood / It could not move.”) But while Wilkinson’s poems simmered without boiling over, Atwood remade her anger into a series of attacks with no retreat.

“Our stories,” she wrote in her early critical work _Survival_ (1972), “are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back”. True to form, her poetry foreshadowed the breakthroughs that were to arrive when female poets learned to play through their pain. _Survival_ has been taken seriously as a vision of Canadian literature, but Atwood’s effort to square our writing against a landscape poorly adapted to human habitation–our imaginations toughened by adversity and resistance–is better understood as a metaphor for a young Anglo-Canadian poet alive to her own colonial cringe. And what Atwood did with this “cringe” is what, in part, made her canonical. Sifting her sources from legend and literature, she created revisionist conjectures–witty revenge fantasies, salty post-Freudian satires–on the inequalities of gender, the oppressiveness of marriage, and the historical anonymity of women. Some of it was overkill, and not infrequently two-dimensional, but it was hard not to be knocked out by poems like “They Eat Out”, “There is Only One of Everything”, “Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein,” or “Marrying the Hangman.” With expectations still lingering in the grey-haired, fauxpatrician mode of the formalist 50s, readers seemed unprepared for Atwood’s rationality and rage, her left-handed moves and wicked deadpan.
Tying a major theme (“the survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival”) to an aesthetic (poetry is “where precision takes place”) won Atwood early fame. When she found a way, starting with _Surfacing_ (1971), to translate that thinking into fiction, she became more than a culture-hero lauded on school curricula: she became spectacularly bankable. Today, as the best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics, Atwood enjoys global acclaim (she exists in twenty languages), graphomaniacal creativity (just her fiction tips the scales at twenty-two books), and the privilege of being Canada’s only legitimate Nobel contender (our last two hopefuls were Irving Layton and Gaston Miron). Not surprisingly, a star-struck literary-industrial complex has sprung up around her works. Whether or not you believe she is a major writer, there’s no doubt her anthologies, criticism, and cultural activism have turned “Peggy” into a walking manifesto, an all-purpose muse for native sensibilities. For her part, Atwood has accepted the role and, with increasing confidence, turned it into a easy rhetorical platform, a good place to start a story (“Recently, I was on a TV show in Mexico. By this time I was famous…” is how a sentence from 2004 starts). We see that role–or, more specifically, her sense of it as marker of instant authority–on display in [_The Door_], Atwood’s thirteenth book of poetry. Workaholic tendencies, merchandising savvyness, nagging status anxiety: whatever her reasons for publishing a new collection, Atwood’s expectation of a large audience has caused her voice to move far up into her head. Her words sound official, high-minded, free of complexity–where, wanting to show us something, Babbittlike nouns and verbs are used to precisely track our sightlines. “The city’s old, / but new to me, and therefore / strange, and therefore fresh.” Such a sum-up of an unnamed European city–unsubtle to the point of crudeness–is the sound of a poet who no longer needs to catch our attention. Some of this can be traced back to the sort of generalizing Atwood has always practiced on her subjects. From the start her poems have been closer to bony soliloquies than fleshed-out confessions–stark asides delivered in the midst of some larger, off-stage drama of consciousness. We can see this clearly in the 1970 classic “Death of a Young Son by Drowning,” where Atwood ventriloquizes a mother’s loss in a generalized setting (“the land I floated on / but could not touch to claim”). Such early poems, restricted to a verging-on-taciturn voice, staked everything on their psychologically-charged subtexts (“the sun kept shining, the new grass / leapt to solidity; / my hands glistened with details.”)
Given what we see when the _The Door_ first swings open–curt descriptiveness, sharp-cut diction, in extremis narratives–it would be easy to think we’re in store for the usual Atwoodian magic. Passages still carry the old bite (“My mother dwindles and dwindles / and lives and lives”), but too often the heart of the matter turns out to be some tough-sounding boiler plate.


fn0. _Arc_ 59, Winter 2008
see issue for Carmine Starnino’s full review of Margaret Atwood’s [_The Door_].

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