Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 by Margaret Atwood (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 147 pages)
Margaret Atwood can look up and work out a meditative interrogation of the moon, as she does in the last poem of this collection. But her true gift as a poet is to look down and detect the moon slithering off a snake's back, or trapped in the bottom of a well.
She clenches better than she opens up. She has praise in her but it gets its greatest energy when delivered not directly but in the reverse crack of an angry whiplash. Her best poems are stones in our path. They trip us and swing us half around, and the sudden pain reveals the world in an unexpected flash.
Writes Out of Need
Atwood is a distinguished novelist--her last book was "The Handmaid's Tale"--but she is a natural, unquenchable poet. Her poems are very direct, very accessible. Accessibility does not mean simplicity, let alone--except in a few off moments--anything approaching the facile. What it means is that she writes very plainly out of need, and this need provokes in the reader a corresponding need to read her.
Her poems are not precisely easy, but there is rarely a question about the poet's intention. She writes as an animal forages, for sustenance; and the foraging carries her to undiscovered places, some distant and some remarkably near at hand. She gets there with a gait--a springy, taut and highly-charged diction--that confers uniqueness upon the destination. Apple-picking is apple-picking but not when a giraffe does it.
Here she is listening to her heart:
... this lump of muscle
that contracts like a flayed biceps,
purple-blue, with its skin of suet,
its skin of gristle, this isolate
this caved hermit, unshelled
turtle, this one lungful of blood,
no happy plateful.
She could have skipped the last line; Atwood sometimes reaches her goal a moment before she realizes it.
Her heart is arrhythmic; the physical tick translates into a moral essence:
... most hearts say, I want, I want,
I want, I want. My heart
is more duplicitous,
though no twin as I once thought.
It says, I want, I don't want, I
want, and then a pause.
It forces me to listen ...
Age sneaks into this selection of poems, written over the last 10 years. Time passes through her body like an invader, and poetry erupts in a guerrilla resistance. In "Aging Female Poet Sits on the Balcony," she writes sardonically:
The front lawn is littered with young men
who want me to pay attention to them
not to their bodies and their freshly-
washed cotton skins, not to their enticing
motifs of bulb and root, but
to their poems ...
It is the retort to Yeats--"only God, my dear/could love you for yourself alone/and not your yellow hair"--only Atwood, who is in mid-passage, has Yeats or a collection of Yeatses actually sitting there
... in the back yard
on the other hand are the older men
who want me to pay attention to their
Under pressure, she transforms into an animal, invariably an undignified one. Old Atwood will be a porcupine.
Now I have only
one trick left: head down, spikes out,
brain tucked in.
I can roll up:
thistle as animal, a flower of quills,
that's about it.
She is unbeatable at addressing vultures:
Frowzy old saint, bald-
headed and musty, scrawny-
necked recluse on your pillar
of blazing air ...
and asking them what they make of death.
I make life, which is a prayer.
I make clean bones.
I make a gray zinc noise ...
But her emblematic animal is the snake, and her Snake Poems are the finest sustained section in the book. Snakes are:
... the breath
that shivers in the yellow grass,
a papery finger, half of a noose, a summons
to the dead river.
They are the image of her poetry:
a shift among dry leaves
when there is no wind,
a thin line moving through
that which is not
time, creating time ...
Atwood writes about women's subjection by men, by time, by their own bodies and spirits. She writes with passion and an indignation which, over and over again, are utterly transmuted into poetic images and which, when they are not, remain as first-rate denunciation.
About men, she is more ironic than angry; she laments more than she condemns. She foresees old age with a man:
I will be one of those old women
with good bones and stringy necks
who will not let go of anything.
You'll be there. You'll keep
the same one.
And in "Another Elegy," after three stanzas of highly inflected mourning for a dead man, she checks herself and, in eight plain lines, she writes of death itself,
which needs no decoration, which is only a boat,
plain and wooden
and ordinary. Without eyes
painted on it,
sightless and hidden
in fog and going somewhere
else. Away from the shore.
Those lines are almost silence, and the highest kind of poetry.