October 2007

Elizabeth Bachner


The Door by Margaret Atwood

I’ve had a Margaret Atwood poem haunting me for years: “You fit into me/like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/ an open eye.” It’s a perfect poem in two lines, and then in a dazzling display of intentional overkill, in a moment of cruel bravado, she adds another two. A favorite Atwood book of mine is Good Bones and Simple Murders, a slim, spare volume full of menace, and that’s what the poem “You Fit Into Me” is -- a simple murder. So much successful contemporary poetry suffers from piles of flotsam and jetsam, rhythmless pages of boring crap about parts of boats, obscure botanical references, ceaseless trips to Montauk or Nantucket, tired moments in the marriages of the rich, or the old parents of the middle-aged middle classes dying movingly of cancer. In Montauk or Nantucket. It takes some searching to find electrifying poetry, cruel poetry, work that skins the body of human life and forces you to look at its bones and guts. Margaret Atwood, at her best, writes evil, indelible poetry like “You Fit Into Me,” and at her best she’s a stealth bomber, slicing into you quickly but fatally. Like a scorpion, she kills at her own expense. Her strongest work is reminiscent of the scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses when the Marquise de Merteuil describes learning to smile while sticking a fork into the back of her hand under the table.

I say all of this to explain my faint disappointment at The Door, Margaret Atwood’s latest volume of poems. Yes, there’s plenty of that classic Atwood turn-of-phrase (“The poet has come back to being a poet/ after decades of being virtuous instead.”; “The hurt child will bite you./The hurt child will turn/into a fearsome creature/and bite you where you stand.”; “the hordes of the starved dead/come back as our heartbeats.”) And yes, there are a good handful of poems that I’ll come back to and reread with great interest, like “Bear Lament,” about losing that belief that “if you could only crawl inside a bear, it’s fat and fur/lick with its stubby tongue… this would save you in a crisis.” One or two poems are vintage Atwood, like “Heart,” about a heart that gets sold literally, passed around, tasted and dropped, “and you stand listening to all this/ in the corner/ like a newly hired waiter,/ your diffident, skillful hand on the wound hidden/deep in your shirt and chest,/shyly, heartless.”

Unfortunately, there are poems in The Door that read like the kind of cluttered, ordinary work a great poet writes to clear out her system, to get to the point where she can cut out the layers of muck and murk that accumulate in everyday life and reach the brilliant clarity of pieces like “You Fit Into Me,” or “Heart.” Margaret Atwood writes enough great, unforgettable poems -- the kind that send shivers up your legs and visit you at random moments -- that a volume of her work needs no fillers at all. This is surely an editorial issue, not a sign of the poet slipping. In “The Poet Has Come Back…”, she concludes that you cannot be both virtuous and a poet -- not now, not in public -- and that it is “time to resume our vigil… the god of poets has two hands:/ the dexterous, the sinister.” Any volume of Margaret Atwood’s work should be shamelessly free of niceties and deference. It should murder us. I will wait, hooked, for Atwood’s next volume of poetry. I have a hunch that it will be free of virtuousness and show off her most sinister, dexterous work yet.

The Door by Margaret Atwood
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618942726
128 pages