Saturday, March 1, 2014

The future tense, immense as outer space

Morning in the Burned HouseMorning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old age, love, loneliness, war, mourning - one could tuck such themes into the thick, wintertime blankets of Margaret Atwood's poetry collection, Morning in the Burned House

Of the five 'chapters' into which the collection is divided, the second is particularly powerful; in poems such as Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing and Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia, Atwood    presents prostitutes as goddesses - superior, desirable, assertive. "I'd rather be a flower [...] to be trampled," says the speaker in Ava Gardner, than the "sad destroyers" who ride into war. "Rats and cholera have won many wars," she says. There's a sort of feminist grit and anti-war sentiment that accompanies Atwood's poems in the first three chapters; She writes of sex, "messy love," (Asparagus) lust and battlefields. She does so boldly and transparently.

Yet it is the fourth chapter in the collection, containing 12 poems about the death of Atwood's father, that bears the most sorrow. At once, the 'grown woman' life portrayed in the second chapter is 50 pages behind. We trade Helen of Troy/Sekhmet/Ava Gardner for the flower girl, the younger 'I,' the daughter watching her father slide into the unrelenting arms of cancer.

"Time is another element you never think about until it's gone," (King Lear in Respite Care) laments the speaker as she sees that her father, attacked by the "industrious [cancer cell,]" (Cell) is beyond convalescence:
Gone are the days
when you could walk on water.
When you could walk.

The days are gone.
Only one day remains,
the one you're in.
The sadness from all the other poems in the collection seem to join hands in this particular chapter; the sadness from the the second poem of the collection (A Sad Child) migrates across chapters 2 and 3 to reach 4, and the last poem, from which the collection takes its name (Morning in the Burned House), also carries residue of the poems in chapter 4. It's 20 pages of grief and introspectiveness. In Down, she asks herself, and we ask too, "what are you supposed to do with all this loss?" The answer almost seems to emerge in Oh: "we decorate pain." We write about it, and Atwood has certainly turned it into poetry.

As she writes in The Fire Place,
Earth does such things
to itself: furrowing, cracking apart, bursting
into flame. It rips openings in itself, which it struggles
(or not) to skin over. The moon
doesn’t care about its own
craters and bruises. Only we can regret
the perishing of the burned place.
Only we could call it a wound.
Only we - humans - are victim to "snow's huge eraser" (Shapechangers in Winter), and the "old thread, old line of ink twisting out into the clearness we call space" (Down)

Morning in the Burned House is a strong collection; there is grief, beauty and tenderness - all of which Atwood spells out unflinchingly.

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