Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 4)

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Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atwood, Margaret 1939–

Ms Atwood is an accomplished Canadian poet and novelist whose richly complex work has been awarded several important Canadian prizes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Much of what Margaret Atwood says in [Procedures For Underground] she has said in her previous books. She presents a world of peripheries, under-surfaces, divisions and isolation similar to the one in The Circle Game, but it would be a mistake to think that Procedures For Underground is simply a repetition of her earlier work. Certainly the surface of these poems remains the same; many of the images of drowning, buried life, still life, dreams, journeys and returns recur and the book is locked into a very repressive and inhibited atmosphere, even though the time-scope of the book is large, covering the chronological stretch from pre-history to the present. As in The Circle Game, personal relationships offer only minimal hope, yet most of the second half of this book expresses a promise of breaking-out that did not occur in the earlier work.

Even the title suggests that people need not be trapped or buried in stasis but that they can take action: there are motions that will push life and the individual forward. This volume moves in its second half more and more to the notion that words can break the authorities and inhibitions that fetter us and even a cry of agony is worth shouting, for it expresses that deep underside with its "mouth filled with darkness". This howl may be an automatic response to fear or pain, simply "uttering itself", but it is a statement, and, as such, is preferable to the blankness of "a white comic-strip balloon/with a question mark; or a blank button."

People still live on the edge in these poems, surrounded by flux, impermanence and repression, haunted by bad dreams, menaced by objects but

            in fear everything
            lives, impermanence
            makes the edges of things burn

In our present pre-historic state of human relationships we are at least evolving; "we are learning to make fire." Flux and disintegration continue but the poet has the means of preserving experience—"Over all I place/a glass bell"…. Things may frighten man but he is a creator; he may in fact create his own fears, his own divisions, his own dreams and nightmares but the act of creation, in particular the act of poetry, becomes an important procedure….

The progression in the book is towards a fundamental belief in the prerogatives of poetry in a threatening, tense world. Even the lining of the poems, still the usual broken, tentative expression she has used before, somehow sounds firmer, playing some kind of strength against the details of violence, repression, doubt and fear, finally emphasizing the courage of coming to terms with that lower layer where "you can learn/wisdom and great power,/if you can descend and return safely."

Margaret Atwood has returned safely, broken the circle, shaken off the persona of Susanna Moodie [the nineteenth-century Canadian poet and novelist] which to my mind was a restriction on her own personality as a poet. Her own clear voice rings out from this book to give us her best collection to date.

Peter Stevens, "Dark Mouth," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 91-2.

Margaret Atwood's "Surfacing" invites comparison with Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar": both novels by poets, both about a young woman who has been made desperate by a stifling social milieu and who can find relief only by abandoning what those around her have defined as sanity. Yet Plath's novel, written 10 years ago, expresses only a pure and private suffering; her heroine, Esther, can make no more impression on the conditions of her life … than a fly on the walls of the jar enclosing it….

Miss Atwood's nameless heroine expresses a more sweeping revolt than Esther, but she is able at the novel's end to come up for air, to move confidently out of the...

(The entire section is 4,267 words.)