Monday, November 19, 2007

The Poet Hangs On: Margaret Atwood's The Door

It is very difficult to disassociate Margaret Atwood from Canada, at least for Canadians. Her distinctive voice—low, wry, at times a parody of liturgical, never burdened with excess inflection, though sometimes burdened by an excess of irony—functions as a sort of collective conscience, a running commentary on our nebulous sensibility. For those Canadians who still consider the role of writers in our cultural life important, those for whom literary conceits possess meaning beyond the invented worlds for which they were devised, Atwood has ascended to assume the role of our national Oracle.

Atwood turns 68 this month. It has been more than a decade since her last collection of poetry appeared, a decade in which she seems to have fully cemented her stature as a novelist of the highest order. When you read her new poetry collection
The Door (McClelland & Stewart, $22.99), you’re inevitably led to question the significance of poetry in an era so seemingly disinterested in it, in the life of a writer who these days has become so famous for doing other kinds of writing, a prolific yet scrupulous writer who has arguably reached an age when writers start getting more particular about how they plan to spend the rest of their career.

Poetry, alternately rendered as something both fragile and immense, is the overt subject of several poems in
The Door. In “The Poets Hang On,” Atwood considers the obsolescence of poets, virtual panhandlers who “have that irritating look / of those who know more than we do,” yet have “forgotten how to tell us / how sublime we are.” In the opening lines of “Possible Activities” she regards literary habit with the tone of one annoyed by another who “could sit on your chair and pick over language / as if it were a bowl of peas.” In “Poetry Reading” she endures a poetic performance long enough to finally surrender to it, allowing herself to be moved while recognizing that “there’s a cold craft to it, as with beadwork / or gutting a mackerel.”

These pieces, to say the least, don’t take their relevance for granted. The poems about poetry set the others in relief, engaging a process through which the reader can see this diverse collection as cohesive, a clear, unhurried train of thought, of artistic and even moral logic rivers its way through. We see the “point” of this activity, and don’t need to ask ourselves why the talented Ms Atwood isn’t doing “more important things.” Poetry in
The Door, not unlike the prose work in Atwood’s recent volume The Tent, is facilitating a dialogue between Atwood’s most personal reflections and her reflections on her country and the world and the tumult in which they collaborate. Yes, the tone overall slips from the wistfulness of memories fading, to the playful otherness of animals and children, to mortality, apocalypse and, slightly more optimistically, the mystery of our collective future.

The strikingly morbid poem “War Photo” makes a nice appendix to Susan Sontag’s final book
Regarding the Pain of Others, finding beauty and solace and finally saying a kind of prayer for a nameless dead victim of some atrocity. I especially liked the unambiguously themed “Weather.” Like “Dutiful,” “Weather” tries to figure out how guilty one should feel about issues clearly greater than any individual action. Climate change is conveyed with awe and alienation, with unease toward our culpability in the climate’s new layer of threat to human life. Weather is “blind and deaf and stupendous,” Atwood writes, “and has no mind of its own ... 

       Or does it? What if it does? 
       Suppose you were to pray to it, 
      what would you say?”

I don’t know if it’s because I always hear Atwood’s actual voice when I read her poetry, but hers strikes me always as a voice of authority. (Even when that voice comes across as too arch, which it rarely does here.) In “The Poet Has Come Back ...” Atwood implies that the poet’s authority can be maintained so long as the poet remains outsider and outlaw. In “Another Visit to the Oracle” this authority is summoned up in humorous and tremendous language that surveys the most frightful blind corners of modern life and carves out some role for the writer in it, ending with a summation that’s memorably piercing and unafraid to take up the torch of the great seer.

      “I’ll tell your story – 
      your story that was once so graceful 
      but now it is dark. 
      That’s what I do: 
      I tell dark stories 
      before and after they come true.”

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