THE TITLE OF MARGARET ATWOOD'S new volume of poems, Morning in the Burned House, catches the nuances of her project here: these poems chart possibility in a world marked by difficulty and loss; morning requires -- and rewards -- the effort of re-vision.
Atwood is drawn to potent expressions of various subjective experiences of the world: we become, as we read, the lonely military historian who wears sensible suits in 11 unalarming shades of beige" to assuage people's anxiety about her unfeminine profession ("The Loneliness of the Military Historian"); we listen to the explanations of Helen of Troy who "sell [s] men back their worst suspicions: / that everything's for sale, / and piecemeal" ("Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing"); we reconsider the trials of Cressida as she challenges Troilus's solipsistic passion ("Cressida to Troilus: A Gift"); we experience the all-night struggles of Mary Webster, hanged -- but not till death -- for witchcraft ("Half-Hanged Mary").
A disarmingly autobiographical speaking presence animates several sections of this collection, picking up echoes of the fears and frustrations of these imaginatively reconceived characters. This presence resists melodrama, delivering the challenges of a mature engagement with the world with the searing wit and conscience that have come to characterize Atwood's vision. This self charts an aging body, wondering "if I should let my hair go grey / so my advice will be better" ("Asparagus"), and reads the difference between "the real [sea], with its sick whales / and oil
slicks" and "the other sea, where there can still be / safe arrivals" ("The Margaret Atwood Ottawa River by Night"). In "Waiting," this self confronts "the dark thing" that is both a saturated adult memory and a childhood intimation of mortality:
and you realized for the first time
in your life that you would be old
some day, you would some day be
as old as you are now
The colliding "you"s in this poem speak the necessity of respecifying experience as a function of passing time. Things are not always as they seem, Atwood's characters argue; the "young, smudgy body" inches toward the surprise of "a stranger's body you could not even imagine" ("Waiting"), and Atwood configures that surprise with a clarity that allows for both pathos and wit.
Morning in the Burned House has all the hallmarks of Atwood's best writing: wickedly dark humour, unflinching insight, sharply drawn images, tough and textured feminism. Occasionally, her clarity of purpose veers toward the pedantic: a poem like "Sekhmet, the Lion-Headed Goddess of War, Violent Storms, Pestilence, and Recovery from Illness, Contemplates the Desert in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," despite the droll bluster of its title, gets mired in the didactic impulse, it seems to me; "Cell" has this flatness too, and "Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing" ends with the lines "This is a torch song. / Touch me and you'll bum."
The temptation to overspecify makes a few of these pieces feel inappropriately prosaic, and this may be compounded by their near relation to prose: the sentence is conspicuous throughout, its confidence at times cancelling the open-ended resonance Atwood's images evoke so suggestively. For me, the most compelling section is the fourth, which conjures a dying father. Here, the sentence feels appropriate, almost understated, as if in the face of the unspeakable -- bewilderment, memory, loss -- we can only muster the unglamorous contours of grammatical structures to assert presence:
followed by supper:
something he can't taste,
a brownish texture.
The sun goes down. The trees bend,
they straighten up. They bend.
("King Lear in Respite Care")
These poems do not allow the consolation of distance; they move us into the murky territory of the personal, where language recollects the particulars of another who's profoundly implicated in one's own knowing, another who slips out of the present and into absence.
'Me fourth section makes possible the lovely ambiguities of the fifth and last, with its conjuring, its visions, its wistful and wondrous connection with selves and others. These poems lead toward a form of knowing that survives -- and surpasses -- the indications of surfaces. To recognize a lover "when ... candies are no longer any use to us" ("Shapechangers in Winter"), to eat breakfast in a burned house when "there is no house, there is no breakfast" ("Morning in the Burned House"): this is "the place of caught breath" ("Shapechangers in Winter").
Moving through the winnowing exacted by loss, Atwood arrives in a place where configuring self and knowledge is a necessarily fluid enterprise, where at any moment we may be surprised by familiarity, caught in the sharp ache of memory. She gives us morning's promise in the burned house.
MARGARET ATWOOD RECENTLY took time out from signing copies of Morning in the Burned House --