Monday, March 30, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 17th Review - Atwood's The Door

The Door is a fairly long collection of poems by Margaret Atwood, which follows on from Morning in the Burned House about 12 years later.  I would say overall Morning is the more compelling collection, but an Atwood fan will eventually want to read The Door.

The Door falls in five overall sections, though some sections don't work as well for me, particularly an entire section about Poets in a general sense that ultimately felt forced, that is to say Atwood wanted to write an entire series about the poetic process, but had to really strain at them.  I'll only write about the poems that interested me and not try to cover the entire collection.

One amusing poem is "Resurrecting the Dolls' House":
Resurrecting the dolls' house
lying dormant for fifteen years,
left behind by its owner,
we unswaddle the wrapped furniture,
wake up the family:
mother and father; a boy and girl
in sailor suits; a frilly baby;
grandmother and grandfather,
their white hair dusty --
all as it should be,
except for an extra, diminutive father
with suave spats and a moustache:
maybe a wicked uncle
who will creep around at night
and molest the children.
No -- let's make him good!
Perhaps a butler, or cook...

The effort in putting the fantasy on slightly more acceptable terms shows up in some internal strain, and the meals that this creepy cook fixes seem hardly edible.  It isn't clear why the narrator is so anxious, but she clearly is.

Stand back: now it's a home.
It glows from within.
The welcome mat says Welcome.
Still, it makes us anxious --
anxieties of the nest.
How can we keep it safe?
There's so much to defend.
There might be nightmares.
Lucky if it's just the toast
that catches fire.

I can certainly understand why the dollhouse would go back under wraps if it triggers all these anxieties.  Still, it is an effective poem, one of the better ones in the collection.

It is followed immediately by a poem ("Blackie in Antarctica") about the death of a family cat, and then a more introspective poem ("Mourning for Cats") that steps back and analyzes why the death of a pet hits so hard.
We get too sentimental
over dead animals.
We turn maudlin.
But only those with fur,
only those who look like us,
at least a little.
No one laments a spider.
Nor a crab.
Baby seals make the grade,
and dogs, and sometimes owls.
Cats almost always.
Do we think they are like dead children?
Do we think they are a part of us,
the animal soul
fuzzy and trusting,
and vital and on the prowl...

Even though Atwood comes across very analytic in this poem, it seems more of a defense mechanism, since she already revealed that she is a big softie in "Blackie in Antarctica" as well as "February" from Morning in the Burned House.

This collection continues with "January," which is another poem about pets in wintertime, the prime difference being that she is thinking about a deceased cat:
The front steps are slick and treacherous;
at night the house crackles.
You came in and out at will,
but this time of year you'd stay indoors,
plump in your undertaker's fur,
dreaming of sunlight,
dreaming of murdered sparrows,
black cat who's no longer there.
If only you could find your way
back through the locked door of air.

As a cat lover myself, I certainly enjoy or at least relate to these cat poems in both collections.

I already alluded to the fact that Atwood has quite a few poems about poets in this collection, most of which seem a bit strained.  I did think "The Poets Hang On" is one of the more successful ones.
The poets hang on.
It's hard to get rid of them,
though lord knows it's been tied.
We pass them on the road
What is it they claim to know?
Spit it out, we hiss at them.
Say it plain!
Go away, we say--
and take your boring sadness.
You're not wanted here.

"Questioning the Dead" has a somewhat similar feel with the dead giving only gnomic answers that are not satisfying to the questioners: "Their voices are dry as lentils / falling into a glass jar. / Why can't they speak up clearly / instead of mumbling about keys and numbers, / and stairs..."

Atwood keeps returning to this theme of hidden knowledge that cannot be passed on accurately, and perhaps inevitably she turns to the Oracle of Greek legends.  She actually has an entire suite called "Another Visit to the Oracle": "They used to ask me all kinds of questions / ... / Now it's only the one thing: / Is there no hope? / They ask that over and over. / Though the sky is as blue as ever / the flowers as flowery..."

I find "Dutiful" resonates with me, even if I never had quite as many expectations placed upon me, since I was born a boy.  Still, in a great many organizations, it turns out that just possessing basic competence means that you end up stuck with all kinds of tasks that you didn't want to take on.  Unfortunately, it is a bit riskier to employ strategic incompetence in a work setting.  I do recall one summer I wanted to do just a bit of volunteer work, and it was I was going to end up running the whole shebang, so I just pulled out before I had more responsibilities piled on.

Anyway, here are a few lines from "Dutiful": How did I get so dutiful? Was I always that way? / ... / sweeping up dirt I didn't make ... / I didn't perform these duties willingly. / I wanted to be on the river, or dancing ... / That's me too, years later, a purple-eyed wreck, / because whatever had to be finished wasn't, and I stayed late, / grumpy as a snake, on too much coffee ... / But I've resigned ... / I've decided to wear sunglasses, and a necklace / adorned with the gold word NO...

Wise words, though I probably need a few more years before I can completely check out of all the things I don't want to do...

The final poem is "The Door," which is clearly a meditation on death, which is fitting given how many of the poems in this last section are about old age and the settling of accounts.

The door swings open,
you look in.
It's dark in there,
most likely spiders:
nothing you want.
You feel scared.
The door swings closed.
The door swings open,
you look in:
why does this keep happening now?
The snow falls,
you clear the walk while breathing heavily;
it's not as easy as once.
Your children telephone sometimes.
The roof needs fixing.
You keep yourself busy.
The spring arrives.
The dog has died.
The happened before.
You got another;
not this time though.
The door swings open:
It's dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.

It's somewhat interesting that even a poet as reasonably as clear-eyed as Atwood falls back on cliches and a bit avoidance when trying to face up to death.  It's just not something that is easy to face, and I suppose there are only so many ways to talk about "the void" or non-existence.

I enjoyed a few poems quite a bit, i.e. the ones I discussed, but a larger proportion of the poems in The Door didn't quite work for me, compared to her earlier collections.  But it's certainly worth flipping through this autumnal collection to see what Atwood is up to now, as I am only able to give a basic overview of the collection (a perennial problem with reviewing poetry).

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