Atwood, Margaret 1939–
A Canadian poet, novelist, and critic, Ms. Atwood is the author of The Circle Game, poems, and Surfacing, a novel.
Canadian poet Margaret Atwood's second book [The Animals in That Country] is one of the most interesting I have read in a long time. There is nothing "feminine" about the poems, which are unmetered and unrhymed, pruned of any excessive words; some of them present a sequence of uninterpreted details, but these are intriguing enough to beguile the reader into an attempt to penetrate their mystery….
What interests me is the compulsive subject of these poems: a distrust of the mind of man, the word, the imagination, even the poem. To Miss Atwood the world is a sacred mystery which can suffer death by the imagination, and man's every conceivable way of dealing with his world is a "surveying", "dissecting", "mapping", "anatomizing", and "trapping" of it, an "invasion" and a "desecration". A pencil, even in the hands of a poet, is a "cleaver"; what is completely captured by the poem dies.
Mona Van Duyn, "Seven Women," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1970, pp. 430-39.
The Canadian poet Margaret Atwood has written a work of feminist black humor ["The Edible Woman"] in which she seems to say that a woman is herself likely to become another "edible" product, marketed for the male appetite that has been created (or, at least, organized) by the media.
This may put the matter more blackly than one should. Miss Atwood's comedy does not bare its teeth. It reads, in fact, like a contemporary "My Sister Eileen."… But Miss Atwood's imagination is too wacky and sinister for situation comedy—and, to our considerable diversion, her comic distortion veers at times into surreal meaningfulness.
Millicent Bell, "The Girl on the Wedding Cake," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1970, p. 51.
Margaret Atwood the poet generally operates on the basis of a tactile world hallucinated and at the same time engineered by her imagination. Thus a bowl of fruit or a photograph is never simply discovered "there", but rather arranged so that the form is understood to be wrought for its greatest intensity. That is, all phenomena, all we are allowed to see, mean, and the author is always behind, leading, pushing, but never giving, the meaning. Or at least not giving it away (ṀMargaret Avison's distinction).
Working that way, Margaret Atwood gives you just what she wants, and while that is usually enough for beautiful poetry, you often want to know more, maybe more than you should. Power Politics is a book of beautiful poetry. It offers lots of refracted material for the sense and opinions, and it remains a puzzle, or maybe a mystery. Probably the author wanted it that way.
If there's one thing Margaret Atwood is on top of it is the current sense of love as a political struggle. The success of the writing in this book depends on the composition's being attended to in the same perplex (see Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook). I think that the verse is the best that Atwood has done, because it takes itself seriously as subject, not as conveyance.
George Bowering, "Get Used to It," in Canadian Literature, No. 52, Spring, 1972, pp. 91-2.
Power Politics, by the Canadian Margaret Atwood, is … a top-flight sequence of poems about a love affair, written with intensity of feeling, careful craft, and harrowing imagery. The "he" of the poem is never given a name, and perhaps we have to guess too hard what "he" is doing or has done; is it a measure of the strength of this volume that we yearn for more factual details?…
Power Politics is an honest, searching book which touches deeply; it goes about as close to the core of the love struggle as Sylvia Plath did at her very best; we emerge from the experience shaken and at once tough and tender.
Dick Allen, "Shifts," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1972, pp. 235-45.
In her first novel, The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood seemed unable to effect a resolution between a novel of manners and an expression of her essential vision. With Surfacing, she has brilliantly succeeded in creating a narrative style which fuses content and form—a quality of prose comfortably close to the diction of her poetry…. [A] central passage from Surfacing summarizes themes that have informed her five books of poetry: anger at wanton destruction; the dehumanization of people to the point where the crucifixion of other creatures elicits only a morbid eagerness to record it; and the supine resignation of the witnesses to the desecration.
Surfacing is about victimization—both external and self-imposed. Atwood has already written about it in many poems…. This novel—like all Atwood's writing—is so richly complex that a review of this length can do no more than sketch some of its aspects. Exploration in depth can be achieved only by complete immersion in her work. When one surfaces, the world looks startingly new.
Phyllis Grosskurth, "Victimization or Survival," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1973, pp. 108-10.
On its face Margaret Atwood's Surfacing is merely another novelistic go, this time by a Canadian poet, at the oldest North American literary theme—that of "lighting out for the Territory," finding yourself by losing others, trading culture for nature. The unnamed heroine-narrator is a divorced freelance artist, city-bound, who learns that her father has disappeared from the family home, a primitive northern Ontario lakefront camp. In company with her lover and a married couple, the young woman goes to the wilderness to search for him. When the search fails, the couples stay on, fishing, gardening, making love, smoking grass, canoe-tripping, pursuing new skills or rediscovering old ones….
The heroine at first bends herself to survival problems almost unconsciously. But later, as she recovers more of the natural knowledge learned from her father and mother in childhood, she draws the inevitable contrasts between her city and wilderness selves, and between her own character and those of her fellow campers. A breach widens; she strikes out at the others, not without provocation, then strikes even at her past, her surroundings—at every mode of "unnatural" conditioning, including memory. At the end she is by herself in the woods, aware of an animal being quivering to life within her; voices call out, summoning her back to "reality," but she hangs fire, unable to commit herself to a return.
A familiar pattern, to repeat—but the execution is extraordinary. This is so partly because Atwood's performance as a natural woman is totally convincing. The feeling for real work—paddling stern, bringing back a garden, killing a landed pike, frogbaiting a hook, finding the ripest berries—is straight and true. The same holds for the natural observation…. And the voice of repugnance at the plastic world mixes humor and pain in proportions demanding trust.
But what is most striking about Surfacing is the integrity of the writer's imagination, a quality somewhat more visible in her earlier books of poetry than in the imagery of An Edible Woman (1970), her first novel. Everywhere in the language of this story there are dependencies, associative prefigurings, linkages extending and refining meaning. Moments of dramatic crisis evolve from metaphor itself, as it seems, so that when, in a fury at false art, the heroine destroys the cinéma vérité film, the act reverberates in the reader's mind with a whole set of connected matters—the heroine's searchings through her own childhood drawings for something genuine, her response to her father's fascination in Indian rock paintings, and much more. The action of the book as a purification by violence of false identity is never erratic; the same standard that denies the heroine herself a name governs her judgment of other human beings….
Atwood's overarching theme—the sin of trivialization, the unpardonable crime of strangling your own seriousness—is better managed than some of its subsidiaries: as, for example, America as locus of universal corruption. And her prose, to speak of that, is mannered: kinky about pronoun references, flashback signals, other bitty-bitchy details. But the writing does invariably have solid objects—a specified social context—in view. There is news in Surfacing of minor and major kinds—news about where the grass is packed in rucksacks and when it's broken out, news also about where exactly the rot comes in nowadays in so-called good marriages of youngsters turning 30, and news about the character of the tensions suffered by a woman once browbeaten into marriage and determined never to be thus intimidated again. Doubtless many sensitive and intelligent younger women will feel, as they read this tale, a special sense of possessiveness, the solace of solidarity (someone else has been here, someone besides me knows what's what). But like all moving and instructive novels, Surfacing shuts nobody out.
Benjamin DeMott, "Recycling Art," in Saturday Review of the Arts (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April, 1973; used with permission), April, 1973, pp. 85-6.