August 2, 2008

Review by S. A. Alfonso

MORNING IN THE BURNED HOUSE
by Margaret Atwood

Houghton Mifflin Company
215 Park Avenue South
New York, New York 10003
ISBN 0-395-75591-3
ISBN 0-395-82521-0 (pbk.)
144 pp., $16.00
www.hmco.com

Margaret Atwood’s collection of poems, Morning in the Burned House, could just as easily have employed morning’s homonym—mourning—in the title. The overriding theme of loss and some of its sources and consequences—aging, grief, death, depression, and anger—permeate this collection and, in particular, Section IV which is a series of elegiac poems about Atwood’s father.

The collection is divided into five sections. Section I opens with the poem “You Come Back.” This poem seems to look back on a life lived in a blur in which much was missed, as evidenced by the lines:

You come back into the room
where you’ve been living
all along. You say:
What’s been going on
while I was away?. . .
. . .You know it was you
who slept, who ate here, though you don’t
believe it. I must have taken
time off, you think, for the buttered
toast and the love. . .
. . . but no,
now you’re certain, someone else
has been here wearing
your clothes and saying
words for you, because there was no time off.

The speaker of this poem seems shocked that he/she has missed so much, has let so much pass him/her by. As this section continues on, we are faced with the speaker’s musing about depression (“Sad Child” and “February”), loneliness (“In the Secular Night”), and aging and/or death (“Waiting” and “Asparagus.”) In the final poem in this section, “Red Fox,” the speaker has no illusions about humanity and how far people will go to get what they need and want. There is also a particularly feminine quality to this form of survival, as evidenced by the use of “vixen” and the references to mothers and children. In this way, “Red Fox” prepares us for what is to come in Section II.

Sections II and III explore the speaker’s anger created by different forms of loss: aging, exploitation, chances not taken, destruction and violence, and, ultimately, death. Many of these poems showcase the speaker’s feminist sensibilities, especially the opening poems of Section II—“Miss July Grows Older,” “Cressida to Troilus: A Gift,” and “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing.” The latter poem in particular echoes the last poem in Section I, “Red Fox”:

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

Again, we see the lack of illusion regarding what we would do to survive, as well as the speaker’s awareness of how women have been exploited and oppressed by both genders.

As the volume moves into Section III, the speaker’s anger becomes more diffuse, encompassing subjects such as the environment, language, and war. However, there is still an overall tone of cynicism, sometimes laced with guilt, regarding humankind. These feelings are particularly evident in the opening poem in Section III, “Romantic,” in which the speaker lays the blame for women’s oppression and exploitation squarely on women. In “Cell,” a poem in which the speaker compares humans to a cancer cell, the speaker’s cynicism is evident:

. . .The lab technician
says, It has forgotten
how to die
. But why remember? All it wants is more
amnesia. More life, and more abundantly. To take
more. To eat more. To replicate itself. To keep on
doing those things forever. Such desires
are not unknown. Look in the mirror.

Section II and III maintain the hard veneer of bargains made and humankind’s denial of its effect on the world around it and on one another. The tone of these sections only softens (and just a bit, at that) in the last poem of Section III, “A Pink Hotel in California.” This poem leads us into Section IV and a series of elegiac poems about Atwood’s/the speaker’s father.

Throughout Section IV, the speaker deals with her feelings of loss: her father’s slipping away into old age and Alzheimer’s and his eventual death. The final poem in Section IV “The Ottawa River by Night,” segues smoothly into Section V. “The Ottawa River by Night” begins hinting at the speaker’s sense of mortality, and Section V continues to explore and strengthen that sense.

The collection ends with “Morning in the Burned House,” in which the speaker mourns a life that has slipped by, sometimes barely noticed, and nearing its end:

I can’t see my own arms and legs
or know if this is a trap or blessing,
finding myself back here, where everything
in this house has long been over,
kettle and mirror, spoon and bowl,
including my own body,
including the body I had then,
including the body I have now
as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy, . . .

In this way, Atwood circles back to the beginning of the volume and “You Come Back,” lamenting the tunnel vision we as humans can have while living our lives and mourning the loss of opportunities for awareness, connection, and something more.

If the entire collection of 45 poems becomes the 46th poem, we can see how this collection comes together to create a speaker who is going through the classic seven stages of grief: shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and hope. It is grief that permeates this volume, whether it is the grief over the loss of a parent, the grief over our own mortality, or the grief over our own cruelty and violence. In the end, the grief in our lives circles back to our own awareness, which is what the speaker/Atwood is trying to tell us: Pay attention. Don’t let it all slip away.

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S. A. Alfonso is a poet and freelance writer who resides in scenic Rhode Island. Her work has been published in the “Newspapers in Education” supplement to the Providence Journal and various local publications. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in English/Creative Writing at Rhode Island College. (www.saalfonso.com)