Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 15) - Essay

Susan Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Marshall Matson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Barbara Amiel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, but Atwood's art makes it universal. The two-headed poems are about every one of us…. (p. 50)

Barbara Amiel, "Poetry: Capsule Comments on Canada," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 92, No. 3, January 15, 1979, pp. 49-51.∗

Gayle Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To criticize Margaret Atwood's work would require that I forget how much I admired her. Edible Woman, Surfacing and Lady Oracle had been personal supports for me, sturdy fictions knotted with so many of the unmentionable feelings most women and many men recognize. Surely she would bring to her Selected Poems the sardonic messages of her fiction? But she didn't. Not at first, anyway. The initial awkwardness of Selected Poems, however, only underscores the book's resolution.

The Circle Game (1966), first of the six in this collection, seems to begin at the end of something—romantic love? To be sure, love is a recurrent theme for Atwood. The poems included from this book vacillate from monosyllabic punch, to flagrant paunch. A sullen, unfocused anger that will neither burn nor quite die out, is reflected in these poems. There is nothing wrong with writing about life's cool fevers, but Atwood's sin here is that the writing style itself suffers from the lack of focus about which she writes….

These poems mean what they say without quite saying what they mean. Atwood admits only to the existence of pain, not to the source of it. By failing to identify this source, she also fails to identify herself in these early poems. But the uncertainty is only temporary and it is exactly this early uncertainty on which the book, her philosophy and indeed, the poet, later pivot. Her evolution peaks in Circe/Mud Poems, with "There's Only One of Everything."…

Nowhere before does Atwood so directly, so breathlessly yield to hope and desire. Nowhere else does she so courageously celebrate her interior moment of joy. Before this, relationships have emerged almost accidentally out of metaphors about a life too despicable to discuss; a love too silent to bother complaining about out loud; or the mean gesture too self-indulgent to keep silent about….

[What] is most perturbing (and not in a constructive way, either) about Atwood's early poems [is that] we are asked to locate a danger Atwood herself has not yet located. Too much is caught and hanging motionless, too much is monotonous and brooding without tangible reason. The reader longs for particulars—why are the defenses up, why these sullen silences? What Atwood provides, instead, is a kind of sterile, existential anger, a formless wound, a hurt followed by...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Laurie Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The characters in Margaret Atwood's fierce new novel, Life Before Man (life after man is the implied gallows joke), can't seem to get through a day without obsessing on extinction. Unlike Doris Lessing's fixation on future cataclysm, Atwood's people … look back to the dinosaur's prophetic tale. Although nobody knows exactly why the giant lizzards didn't make it, Life Before Man posits the notion that obsolescence may simply be built into the process of life. We're not doomed because we're irresponsible and wicked; we're just doomed. Quel consolation.

Life Before Man is full of variations on the theme of extinction, but whereas total obliteration of the species has a rather limited mirth-yield, Atwood the satirist shoots mainly at smaller scale extinctions—monogamy, repressed feelings, polite conversations, and novels of manners that describe these fossils. Though far from extinct, the rotten childhood, failed marriage, failed affair, failed fuck, successful suicide, and cancer death also figure in the story. Life Before Man is wry, pitiless, and sometimes moving. But there are problems.

Atwood gets trapped by her own cleverness and skill at literary games. An omniscient narrator tells the story, alternating between the perspectives of the three main characters: Elizabeth, the survivor, Lesje, an archeologist and lover of old bones, and Nate, estranged husband of Elizabeth and...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Life Before Man] has a subtly documentary air, like the best kind of women's journalism or the most sympathetic case notes. Events are precisely dated. Canadian social structure, domestic interiors, street habits are inconspicuously documented…. Yet the writing is not pedestrian. The novelist is also a poet; one is reminded of this not by her lyricism but by her precision, as when Nate at a party stares down the meaningless cleavage of a meaningless girl: "He watches this pinched landscape idly."

Life Before Man is a very skillful work, linguistically sensitive, not at all boring, utterly realized, disciplined, perceptive. It provokes a slight unease. Margaret Atwood is one of a number of contemporary women novelists adding to a body of fiction that in terms of technique, thoughtfulness, honesty and sheer intelligence has probably never been equaled. That sounds like a school-report; and there lies the unease.

Life Before Man is so responsible. There is in it no theme, no piece of characterization or narrative that could not be shown in an academic English department discussion to be functional, ordered, structurally sound, part of the overall conception. Lesje in the novel says to Elizabeth, "You wanted to supervise us. Like some kind of playground organizer." Margaret Atwood controls her characters in the same sort of way.

The great works of art are anarchic and have something irrational and inexplicable about them. "Organisms adapt to their environments. Of necessity, most of the time," though occasionally "with a certain whimsy," writes Margaret Atwood in this book, citing as an example the modified third claw of the hind foot of the Deinonychus dinosaur. Since the claw never touched the ground, paleontologists have speculated that its purpose was to disembowel prey. The dinosaur would have held an animal with his forefeet and balanced on one hind foot while using the third claw of the other foot "to slash open the stomach of the prey." It was "a balancing act, an eccentric way of coping with life," and it was "this eccentricity, this uniqueness, this acrobatic gaiety" that appealed to Lesje. Life Before Man is a good novel, but the author has both her feet on the ground. I suspect very good novels are written with the third claw.

Victoria Glendinning, "Survival of the Fittest," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), January 27, 1980, p. 4.

Rosellen Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Life Before Man, Atwood's fourth novel, makes the same kind of potent connections [that one finds in her best poetry], and makes them not so much with a poet's language … as with a poet's economy. On a single typical page we are moved from a routine listing of the detritus of a young woman's life, "a straight black skirt, a mauve slip … a pair of pantyhose, the kind that comes in plastic eggs," to an apprehension of mood as extravagantly bleak as [that of "Mid-Winter, pre-solstice"]: "She thinks about her hands, lying at her sides, rubber gloves: she thinks about forcing the bones and flesh down into those shapes of hands, one finger at a time, like dough."

Life Before Man moves by...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Marilyn French

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is no surprise to discover, on the publication of "Life Before Man," that the Canadian Margaret Atwood is a writer of importance, with a deep understanding of human behavior, a beautiful understated style and, rarest of all, broad scope—an awareness of wide stretches of time and space….

That she is gifted was clear even in her first novel, "The Edible Woman," though that satiric feminist book tends toward the lightness of the confection that is its central image. "Surfacing," her second novel, is an accomplished work and was recognized as such by feminists, even though the work is not politically feminist. It is a sparely written, strong, lyrical recounting of a woman's return to her childhood...

(The entire section is 632 words.)