Anyone who knows Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale knows that she’s a wickedly smart and unflinchingly daring writer of fiction. Watch her video introduction for an online writing course she teaches and you’ll see that she’s also wise, passionate, and funny as hell.
In 1978’s Two-Headed Poems all of those traits shine through twenty nine poems as diverse as the author’s many attributes. This is a powerful woman of words, and Two-Headed Poems a slim, but strong example of her craft.
Atwood cuts deep. Poem after poem she carves away what is unnecessary and leaves her readers with something real. In “The Woman Who Could Not Live With Her Faulty Heart” that reality is the heart.
I do not mean the symbol
of love, a candy shape
to decorate cakes with,
I mean this lump of muscle
That contracts like flayed biceps,
Purple-blue, with its skin of suet,
Its skin of gristle, this isolate,
This caved hermit, unshelled
Turtle, this lungful of blood”
Reading Atwood’s poetry is like experiencing her novels distilled. In the beautifully cold “Marrying the Hangman” Atwood describes the historical reality that in colonial Québec an imprisoned man might be freed if he agreed to become a hangman, and a woman in prison might be pardoned if she married a hangman. Rooted in research, much as were the most horrific details of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Marrying the Hangman” plants universal truths in the extraordinarily specific example she chooses as her subject.
The narrator of her poem tells us:
My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
which cannot be believed and which are true. They
are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
they have not yet happened to me, they have
happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
unbelief with horror. Such things cannot happen to
us, it is afternoon and these things do not happen in
Stories “which cannot be believed and which are true,” Atwoodian in poetry or prose.
The fierceness that is Atwood looks out from the author photo on the 1980 edition on my bookshelf. Her’s is the face of a writer with purpose, a poet with as much muscle as grace, a cipher to the great accompt of real human intimacy. Hearts in Atwood are flayed biceps and unshelled turtles, each a lungful of blood.
For someone like me, in the business of education, reading Atwood is a reminder of the complicated lives of those who fill our school and populate our school community. Students, parents, teachers, we all carry within us some of that conflict and contradiction, the doubt, desire, compulsion to create and fear of falling short.
Who was it told us
those who take risks
And as she closes this collection with the poem “You Begin,” delivered (at least it seems from my particular perspective) from a teacher or parent to a child:
This is the world which is fuller
And more difficult to learn than I have said.”
I see in those lines a promising truth. Yes we face difficulty, and risks, and the accidents that come from taking those risks, and our stories which cannot always be believed are true. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the world (Atwood’s and our own) is full.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Julia Randall’s The Puritan Carpenter.