The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

“All Bread” is a short poem in free verse, comprising four stanzas of uneven length. The poem’s central premise is the interdependence of humans and the earth and the cyclical rhythms of that relationship. A parallel interdependence between males and females is also implicit in this premise. Bread is the archetypal product of the earth, both the “staff of life” and an element of sacrifice and sacrament. The mundane yet important ritual of making and consuming bread shapes the poem and provides its central metaphor.

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The poem’s four stanzas trace the stages in the bread-making process, moving from field to kitchen to consumption, from drudgery to communion. Stanza 1 describes the growing grain which comprises all the elements of earth, vegetable and animal, living and dead. Humans plant and harvest the grain; they assemble the wood and water necessary to mill and cook it; the cook shapes it into loaves. Stanza 2 describes the baking process, evoking the moist heat and the aroma that gives bread-making its appeal. Stanza 3 defines bread’s taste on the individual’s tongue; and stanza 4 invokes perhaps the most meaningful part of the bread-making process: sharing bread.

The poem is written in the first person. Its tone is personal and intimate, as if a kitchen-table conversation were taking place while bread is being shared in a daily family or neighborly ritual. Stanza 4, though, takes on the cadence of a priest intoning the rites of Eucharist: “Together/ we eat this earth” is the benediction that closes the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

As is typical in Margaret Atwood’s poetry and much of her prose, “All Bread” is permeated with the imagery of elemental, primordial life with which Atwood believes humankind is intimately bound. The poem’s language is bare. Its words are largely monosyllabic, sparse and direct, very Anglo-Saxon, sometimes gross—the speech and imagery of peasants and laborers bound, often unwillingly, to the earth: “All bread is made of wood,/ cow dung, packed brown moss,/ the bodies of dead animals.” These materials are obtained by “nine strokes/ of the axe.” The making and consumption of bread is the shaping metaphor for Atwood’s unoriginal vision of the life cycle as binding life and death irrevocably. At the poem’s conclusion, Atwood’s usually pessimistic outlook is leavened by an uncharacteristic optimism. Homely, rustic rituals, performed in field and kitchen, affirm humans’ community with other humans and with the earth. Says critic Kathleen Vogt: “The bread of communion is the bread baked in the kitchen; it is a part of the processes of nature, which include death and life. These processes are a kind of sacrament in ‘All Bread.’”

The intricate interweaving of death and life, destruction and creation, is suggested in the poem’s juxtaposed images of ancient sacrificial rituals (especially of humans to pagan gods) and of the fecund warmth of pregnancy and birth evident in the description of the bread’s rising and baking:

nine strokesof the axe, skin from a tree,the rowof white famine belliesswollen and taut in the oven,lungfuls of warm breath stoppedin the heat from an old sun.

Sacramental ceremony is also suggested by “a silver dish” in which the loaves are offered to the oven.

Salt is the dominant image in stanza 3: “Good bread has the salt taste/ of your hands after nine/ strokes of the axe, the salt/ taste of your mouth.” The ambivalence expressed through the rest of the poem’s imagery is sustained here. Indispensable bread is indeed the salt of the earth but conversely requires the saltiness of blood, sweat, and tears expended in the labor of sustaining life. Despite this imagery of sacrifice, a tone of fulfillment is also discernible in stanza 3.

This tone carries the reader into stanza 4, where diction and mood become more quietly exalted. For the first time, more complex and connotative words occur, recalling the solemn, splendid liturgy of the Eucharist (or Communion) ritual. “Lift,” “ashes,” “devour,” “consecrate,” “broken,” and “shared” all evoke Christ’s devotions to his followers at the Last Supper: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ ” (Matthew 26:26). The poem’s final lines—“. . . Together/ we eat this earth”—bring it full circle, back to the earth where the residues of death and the elements of life are equally contained, and where the making and eating of humble bread is a reminder to humankind of its place in the cycle.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.

Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.

Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.

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Themes