“Better to be strong than pretty and useless.” Lilith Saintcrow, Strange Angels
The Blind Assassn, was my introduction to Ms Atwood. That, and other books including The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and The Robber Bride (1994) have firmly established her reputation as a novelist.
Last year, at a sale, I picked up Alias Grace (1996) and to my utter delight, saw, on the first page of the novel, what looked like the author’s signature!
Of late, it is her poetry I have enjoyed more. This discovery happened quite by chance. In 2011, I was at a bookstore at an airport, when I noticed, Eating Fire. Drawn by the title, I was delighted to find that this body of work featured Atwood’s poetry from 1965 to 1995. I hadn’t even known that she wrote poetry.
I opened the book and saw this poem titled, “Is/Not”.
Love is not a profession genteel or otherwise/ sex is not dentistry/ the slick filling of aches and cavities/ you are not my doctor/ you are not my cure/nobody has that power/ you are merely a fellow traveller. Give up this medical concern/ buttoned, attentive/ permit yourself anger and permit me mine/which needs neither your approval nor your surprise/ which does not need to be made legal/ which is not against a disease but against you/ which does not need to be understood or washed or cauterized/ which needs instead to be said and said. Permit me the present tense.”
Love described with candidness is not found too often. After all it isn’t candy hearts and flowers. It’s ugly sometimes, hurtful even. And this writer just… got it.
I was hooked.
The power of words
What shines through in her verse is her engagement with nature and animals, her interest in a fantasy world, gender concerns and the strength of truth. She believes in the potency of language, considers storytelling to be vital and conveying one’s point of view, essential.
Although she’s considered a feminist, Atwood has often rejected that label. That said, her poems often make the case for the victimised women that she encounters in real life. Her poetry showcases and celebrates the conflicts of life. Man against nature, gender against gender, a person against the other. These paradoxes are not jarring; instead the poet is comfortable working within them with acceptance and openness.
In ‘Variations on The Word Love’, Atwood writes: This is a word we use to plug holes with. It’s the right size for those warm blanks in speech/ for those red heart-shaped vacancies on the page/ that look nothing like real hearts. Add lace and you can sell it. We insert it also/ in the one empty space on the printed form/ that comes with no instructions. (…)Then there’s the two of us. This word is far too short for us/it has only four letters/ too sparse to fill those deep bare vacuums between the stars/ that press on us with their deafness. It’s not love we don’t wish to fall into/but that fear. (…) It’s a single vowel in this metallic silence/ a mouth that says O again and again in wonder and pain/ a breath/ a finger grip on a cliffside. You can hold on or let go.
Poet, writer and critic, Atwood has taught in various institutions and countries and has won many awards including the Commonwealth Literature Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her works are translated into 30 languages.
I felt heartened to note that like many poets, big and small, her first book was self-published. Fifteen books of poetry later, she isn’t searching for publishers anymore, that’s for sure. While there is sorrow in some of her poetry, others show her humour.
Atwood turned down a request to write a book blurb using humour and poetry.
In ‘Ode to No’, she writes: (…) I would like to be useful/God knows, as a girl I was well-taught to help and to share/But the books and the pleas for quotes pour through the door/Till the heaps of them drive to despair! (…) So I wish you Good Luck/ and your author/ and book/ Which I hope to read later/ with glee. Long may you publish/ and search out the blurbs/ Though you will not get any from me.”
The entire letter continues in this vein! Her poetry. Talk about formidable craft.
Srividya Sivakumar has recently published a collection of poems called The Blue Note. You can find her work at www.rumwrapt.blogspot.com