In her novels and poems, Margaret Atwood often addressed themes concerning the lives of Native Americans in her home country of Canada.
"The Poor Woman Learns to Write" would seem to be another example of this thread in Atwood's writing. The woman described in the poem seems to be a Native American.
Atwood begins the poem by carefully describing the woman's appearance in simple, direct language. Atwood summarizes this description with the phrases "not graceful" and "awkward."
Atwood then describes the woman's "writing lesson":
She prints with a stick, laboriously
in the wet grey dirt,
frowning with anxiety.
The woman is proud of her work:
She looks up, smiles
as if apologizing,
but she's not. Not this time. She did it right.
The poem's narrator admits that she does not understand the script in which the woman has written her name. However, she offers three guesses regarding the meaning of the name:
Joyful Flower? A Radiant One? Sun On Water?
These names are, of course, metaphors for the poet's admiration of the woman.
The poem is written in simple, conversational language. It includes several sentence fragments, such as "Her hair concealed," and "Great big letters." Perhaps this is meant to echo the woman's own simple, uneducated speech.