Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing Analysis
In “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Margaret Atwood modernizes the famous Greek beauty Helen of Troy to reflect on society’s expectations of women. The poem unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, combining elements of Greek mythology and contemporary poetics.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779
Atwood chooses a title that reads like a headline from a tabloid magazine; however, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” does not take on the voice of a reporter. Atwood intentionally juxtaposes modern and classic genres, often employing informal and conversational diction in self-contained lines, such as “selling gloves, or something” in the first stanza. She uses adjectives like “beery” while playing with syntax and colloquialisms from different periods of literature, as exemplified in the following emotive expression: “Such hatred leaps in them, / my beery worshippers!” In this exclamation, Atwood engages with various linguistic styles and sentence structures, using an almost Romantic dramatic voice while also exploring contemporary themes of power, capitalism, and objectification. This mixture of linguistic styles mirrors and further emphasizes the contrasting thoughts and feelings Helen expresses throughout the poem.
Atwood’s free-verse form in “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” echoes the poem’s conceit: with no rhyme scheme or meter, the speaker’s words are free of constraints. They do not conform to literary conventions, nor do they abide by societal rules. Boundless in form, this poem navigates the conflict between self and society—particularly the persistent objectification of women throughout history, as exemplified by Helen of Troy. This clash of inhibiting forces—those of womanhood, self, and society—manifests in Atwood’s style. She interchanges long, sensually charged descriptions with shorter, incomplete sentences that interrupt or expand upon the speaker’s introspective process, as seen in the excerpt below:
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.
Throughout the poem, the speaker is engaging in an act of self-possession, perhaps a reaction against the feeling of being a “foreigner”—even to herself—because of how men view her. Atwood employs a slightly elegiac voice, swinging between woeful self-expressiveness and gritty, aggressive confidence. This pendulum swing is vividly embodied in the final stanza of the poem, beginning with a metaphor in which the speaker powerfully expresses the destructive impulse that lurks behind the male gaze:
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
Helen of Troy, who was abducted by Prince Paris at the start of the Trojan War, is the classic example of objectification: the men around her will compete, and even go to war, to possess or own her. The poem suggests that women are seen as objects to be consumed by men, and meat, a recurring symbol throughout the poem, illustrates this theme of consumption. Similes such as “naked as a meat sandwich” and “obvious as a slab of ham” suggest that men wish to strip women of their humanity—to commodify them. This idea is further explored in the last stanza, as the speaker accuses men of reducing her to “components” in an “abattoir” (slaughterhouse), thus speaking to the fragmentation that necessarily accompanies the objectification of women.
Atwood alludes to a war within the body while also rooting the poem in the events of the Trojan War. The following lines exemplify Atwood’s use of illustrative language, dense metaphor, and vivid imagery to paint a scene:
The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape's been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there's only a bleak exhaustion.
This austere sequence of dark imagery reinforces a dichotomous depiction of war as both an internal and external event. In Helen of Troy’s case, “rape” may refer to her controversial abduction by Prince Paris of Troy. Throughout history, Helen has been perpetually depicted as a stolen treasure, but the poem rejects this narrative, preferring instead to examine questions of her own agency and identity: Is she a helpless victim? A promiscuous manipulator? Something in between?
In using images of the speaker rising in the air “like breath or a balloon,” Atwood ends the poem on an empowering note, in which the “blazing swan-egg of light” symbolizes self-awareness, invigoration, and rebirth as Helen takes ownership over her body and reclaims herself. Her tone is authoritative, even defiant, in the final lines of the poem, and in a direct address to the audience, Helen forcefully declares her identity and claims her power:
You think I'm not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you'll burn.