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Another Night Visit
by Chris Whynoti

'Maybe men shouldn't have been told about their own humanity ... it's only made them uncomfortable' IT'S LATE, past 11:30, and the crowd is dwindling. The last of those who paid extra for the privilege are lined up to get autographs, to make small talk, to take away with them some memento, some remembered connection with the presence in that room. Margaret Atwood has been "on" now, for more than three hours. At last she sits to sign a final few books, a gracious, exhausted, purple presence. Her eyes have a tired, burnt look; they glance slightly in the direction of the evening's host, who responds appropriately with offers of "car," "hotel," and "rest." A very good evening's work is over.

This is the second time in six weeks that Atwood has performed in Kingston. The first was a free reading, part of the promotional tour for Cat's Eye. I didn't make it into that one. I arrived in what I thought was plenty of time only to find that the place had been full for over an hour already. Scott, at the door, tells me, that people have camped out for most of the day to get in. Camped out! My mind goes back to nights sleeping in line outside Maple Leaf Gardens for Dylan tickets. Sure, my priorities have changed, but I'm 36 now, I have a day job, and it's cold outside. The magnitude of Atwood's star left me shivering my disappointed way back home.

Tonight's reading has a taste of cold reality to it as well, though of a different order. It is not free. It is, rather, a benefit for Kingston Interval House, the local shelter for battered women and their children. They need money for new wiring that the fire inspector has demanded. Tickets are $12 for the reading and $25 if you want to hobnob at a reception afterwards. This time I am first in line.

Given the nature of the event, it is no surprise that the first impression on entering the hall is one of seriousness. This is underlined by the introductions, one by the head of women's studies at Queen's University, the other by a member of the board of Kingston Interval House. They speak of patriarchy, of resistance, of struggle, and of violence. By the time Atwood reaches the podium, the room is sharp with crystalline energy; fragile and expectant.

Then the voice begins. The voice, which makes perfect sense of those clipped sentences, those odd, evolving digressions. That voice, which will sing/drone to me now as I read Cat's Eye. That startlingly funny voice without a laugh track. But the laughs come anyway. Tentative at first (is this allowed?), but then more confident (of course, of course, it is necessary). Then somewhere in the laughter a kind of lateral shift takes place in the audience, from seriousness to solidarity. We know Why we are here, but we are glad this is happening. This is fun.

My own contentment is ruffled by a number of less comfortable identifications. The cameraman who is filming the reading seems determined to make his presence as obnoxious as possible. He intrudes constantly and inappropriately, roaming the stage and the audience as though all this were put on for his benefit. He makes everyone nervous. When he has enough, he flicks off his lights abruptly in the middle of a passage, throwing Atwood's face into shadow. This guy just isn't listening. There is another man, too, who was here but didn't stay, a university professor in history. I saw him arrive at the reading with ?his wife. He took one look at the audience, saw that it was 90 per cent female, and turned tail. What is he afraid of? Another man, sitting in my row, whispers a comment about this being a good place to score. "Good odds." He's joking, of course. You could .ask him and he'd tell you he was joking, "Maybe men shouldn't have been told about their own humanity," Atwood reads. "It's only made them uncomfortable. It's only made them trickier, slyer, more evasive, harder to read."

I am reminded of the way I felt at the Odetta concert last spring during Black Awareness Week. I am outside much of the experience that is being spoken of; I don't get all the jokes. I am a white man and she isn't singing to me, but that's okay. I like what I hear. What I am hearing tonight is a reading in which none of the punches are pulled. Atwood, defers only to accuracy and the attempt to uncover truth.

Too soon the reading is over and she asks for questions from the floor. Now a new element is added to the picture ? the writer's hands. Freed from holding the book they rise into the light and become the centrepiece of the stage. They dance in answer to the questions, sometimes solo, sometimes in an intricate pas de deux. Maybe if the cameraman had stayed to listen he would have caught this perfect image of the evening; the warmth of the room, the honest voice, the rich purple dress and Atwood!s hands, dancing.

A gift in an evening of gifts. Some people wondered about this kind of event as an Interval House fund?raiser. But it worked beautifully. And if you look at it, it makes perfect sense, not only because of Atwood's politics. There are currently two women poets on the board of directors of Kingston Interval House. For these women, work in the world and work in words are inextricably linked. At my day job I work as a counsellor for men who batter. We also have a very good and active board. No male writers have asked to join. This is perhaps one indication of the difference between men's and women's writing in this country at this time. That this difference has a history was put neatly into context by Carolyn Smart in her introduction to the evening. She read an. unpublished poem, "Another Night Visit," which Atwood wrote in memory of Pat Lowther. These are the words I carry from that evening.

That mouth is gone, sealed over, like ajar closed, no, broken, skull a cave no longer. Blood, your fire on the wall and floor smouldering there weeks after.

It was not bad luck.


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