In the last decade Margaret Atwood has emerged as a champion of Canadian literature and of the peculiarly Canadian experience of isolation and survival, a theme that runs throughout her poems, three novels and criticism. But Atwood is no narrow, doctrinaire chauvinist…. [Selected Poems] brings together selections from her six books of poetry…. It is fascinating to be able to see the development of Atwood's style and subject matter from book to book in this way; from the beginning, Atwood has had a startlingly original voice, full of toughness and energy and a very powerful intelligence, and she has continued to explore a basic core of subjects—the function and nature of myth; humanity's relationship to nature; the nature of power in human relationships and in the natural world; the possibilities for change and metamorphosis. (p. E6)
Susan Wood, "A Garland of Verse," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 3, 1978, pp. E6-E7.∗
[The poems collected in Two-Headed Poems are] of disappointment, political and personal. The "two-headed poems" are specifically the political ones in the middle of the book where the heads speak for two political bodies joined like Siamese twins who dream of separation. Because the bodies are joined at the head, separation is especially risky. And because the heads speak two different languages, words are especially misleading. (p. 12)
After the wintry middle poems of our political discontent, we may look in the later poems for the progress of seasons to bring new life. But we get just a glimpse of muddy spring, followed by a winter solstice poem. Then, after Easter, it's January again. In other words, the poems reflect no progress of seasons; there is only repetition. Easter is not a matter of rebirth but of dissolution and re-formation….
The years since You Are Happy (1974) have had their effect: these are sadder poems. Elegy marks the passing of time, and it marks these times. It tells of life on the land, and of this land. In the gloom the poet's quick edge still flashes, however, and sometimes cuts too easily. The long prose poem "Marrying the Hangman" proceeds from the true story of a servant woman in colonial Quebec…. Margaret Atwood inventively unfolds the implications of this story, but her quickness flirts with fatuity when she explains that the woman stole clothes because she wanted to be more beautiful, and adds: "This desire in servants was not legal."…
The metaphors in these poems are characteristically sharp. The images are often biological, blending disgust and relish. There is that bravura violence: an eye is "crushed by pliers," the heart is a pincushion…. Blood and bleeding are so frequent they may come to seem gratuitous, as when apples are regarded as drops of blood. When, however, the bleeding apple tree is further conceived as showing compassion in the creation of something out of nothing, the apples condensing like dew as well as dripping like blood, we realize the grace of the gratuity. (p. 13)
Marshall Matson, "Yoked by Violence," in Books in Canada, Vol. 8, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 12-13.
Margaret Atwood's work has a razor-edge incisiveness. Best-known for her literary thesis, Survival,… Atwood's extraordinary talent is in her poetry. Though unmistakably of this country in her images and tone, as a poet Atwood has always been more concerned with private than with public ghosts: the crippling boredom that can strangle love; the vicious cycle of self-gratification that tears men and women apart, and, on a more metaphysical level, the stubborn task of reconciling civilization with this land studded with rocks and peopled with indifference…. [This] singular woman writes with a steeliness unequalled in English poetry today. Her magnificent new book, Two-Headed Poems , is a spare, exquisite and merciless look at the many selves of the poet's persona. Such an examination might be a mere self-indulgence in the hands of a less inspired practitioner,...
(The entire section is 3,890 words.)