Susan Wood

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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)

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Susan Wood, "A Garland of Verse," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 3, 1978, pp. E6-E7.∗

Marshall Matson

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[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

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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

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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 a hollowing. (p. 30)

[With Power Politics a] character begins to emerge, someone who—for all her self-knowledge—still subjects herself to the wrong lover….

Anger evolves: "You fit into me/like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/an open eye." These feelings disturb; and at last they identify a palpable anger….

We see the lovers who haunt this poetry: one moment dependent, pathetic and forebearing in the mightiest martyred sense; the next moment, charming, independent, parental. Above all they are lovers full of fear. They are contemporary lovers, approach-avoidance lovers….

In Songs of the Transformed (1974), we come to realize just how far Atwood can extend her obsessions. These poems are so entirely repugnant that they are brilliant. They are not formed by the earlier short, clever bursts of academic wit but rather a sustained, identifiable scorn….

Her double meanings are at once vulgar and absolutely fascinating. The "Songs" are more pungent and philosophic than ever before….

The metaphors are as clear as Atwood's growing understanding about her own part in the romantic malaise….

The search is no longer vague; is not about being the victim or victimizer of love; is not an attempt to coax a lover to love her. Instead, the poems reach a maturity that realizes the limitations of the self. Atwood begins to know and to insist on nothing less than what she wants….

By "Four Auguries" …, she has gone from bondage to an ability to bond….

The poems now show that the thing strived for is achieved only at the end of striving. And every painful step—for both Atwood and the reader—leads to "There's Only One of Everything." This poem is entirely worth the wait….

Selected Poems covers geographies other than those of love and hate. (p. 31)

Too often, though, even in these "non-love" poems, Atwood parcels out the brilliant phrase and then retracts it by going past the point. The impression is that some of the poems don't rise out of themselves but are built by slapping mud on the sides of one clever line, stanza or thought, as with "Resurrection":

               god is not
               the voice in the whirlwind
               god is the whirlwind.

When she is being academic and clever, she is tiresome. Many of the poems from The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) drone before the clever phrase, as with "Resurrection;" or after it, as with "Elegy for the Giant Tortoises," which makes the plea seem like a ploy…. (pp. 31-2)

It isn't that Atwood has simply not prepared us for the sort of "liberal's" guilt [that poems like "It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers"] convey, which makes them so repellent. It is more because they begin so believably, perhaps, that their endings are anticlimactic, dispensable, difficult to believe. She is easily at her best on her own turf, with topics that feed and drive her personally. Even—or especially—when she is striking out against a passive world (or the passive side of herself?) and refuses to submit to that passivity….

[Atwood's] capacity to name the maladies takes her poetry from its early passive hostility to involvement, movement and finally, identity. By the time she writes Songs of the Transformed, the former shy spurts of anger explode into a welcome, noisy surliness….

Margaret Atwood takes a sidelong glance at the world from within the dark oval on the cover of Selected Poems…. This portrait of contradictions, this face, this book, deserve reading. (p. 32)

Gayle Wood, "On Margaret Atwood's 'Selected Poems'," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Gayle Wood), Vol. 8, No. 5, September-October, 1979, pp. 30-2.

Laurie Stone

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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 tepid lover of Lesje. The point of this narrative device is partly to send up the Jamesian novel, where dramatic tension derives mainly from the disparity between statement and feeling—a vision in which the pulse races not at consummation, but at interruptus, at the exquisitely restrained sentiment and suspended confession.

As well as parodying them, Atwood's narrator speaks for her characters because, like tongue-tied dinosaurs living in the age of candor, not one is capable of spitting out an honest thought. Elizabeth lies in order to control. Lesje covers up out of fear. Nate dissimulates because he has no idea what he feels. But while Atwood is good at satirizing perverse withholding, the novel's formal structure ultimately dwarfs the characters. They don't have the blood and the story doesn't have the juice Atwood intended. The emotional core isn't in the comedy, but in the way real life is shown being lived, and this should have cracked the novel's structure at some points, plumped its skeleton with irregular contours. Instead, Life Before Man is tight as a poem in which nothing much happens; thematic obsessions take the place of drama, and the writing becomes precious. Also, because the characters are observed rather than recorded, they become stereotypes: Elizabeth is too calculating and cold, Lesje too naive, and Nate too noncommital to be believed.

Still, Atwood can unquestionably write a sentence. Her meditations on extinction, adaptation, and survival deepen on each successive page….

At her most powerful, Atwood shows what it's like to ride and trip toward extinction without quite feeling it happen, to see the signs of obsolescence in the faces of children, and to feel the pull toward shelter on the one hand, and toward blood-pumping danger on the other. Mutatis mutandis, momento mori, and danse macabre is the dinosaur's message.

Laurie Stone, "Dinosaur Dance," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission; copyright © 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 1, January 7, 1980, p. 32.

Victoria Glendinning

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[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

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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 a succession of countless such small surprises, from the everyday world of Toronto in the mid-Seventies back into the unpeopled drafts of prehistory…. (p. 33)

The book, however, is not apocalyptic; Atwood is not a Canadian Lessing. She concentrates with extraordinary patience on the day-to-day details of her characters' psychological lives, arranging husband and wife and shifting third party in a series of conventional if extreme lovers' triangles. But if the force of a poem can be said to be centripetal, all details finally pulled in away from the random edges, so can the best of Atwood's novels. Surfacing was in the end, like so many of her poems, preoccupied with her own stylized geology—with water and stone, drowning, dissolution and rebirth. Life Before Man is similarly drawn in toward the rich image at its center, a fascination with time and past life, the habits of extinct animals, the perpetuation of memory in us and of us, as palimpsest of history, our own and our families'. (pp. 33-4)

Elizabeth has made herself into a victor, though she suffers more pain than we tend to attribute to the powerful….

She is surely, among modern heroines, a woman who challenges the reader to decide whether characters need to be liked, or only (only?) understood. She asks no forgiveness, though those who live in her power are somehow able to forgive more than we can. (p. 34)

Life Before Man makes slow going until the muted irony of its voice becomes familiar. Even the luridness of some of its events and imagery are numbed and forbidding much of the time. That the three principals whose minds we inhabit sound identical, that the actual facts of their situation accrete very gradually, parceled out to us without haste, with a control that is almost a form of dignity—are in the end not flaws; they are an intentional function of Atwood's vision. This is a book meant to be heard as a disembodied voice, very nearly objective for all the intimate details it renders. It is, in its way, a mockup of a scientific treatise on the behavior of primates rapt in their ritual love-hate behavior.

However dour the delivery, the book has the uncannily satisfying feel of exhaustive, unremitting inquiry. (It is also grimly funny in its reflections on Canadian—alas, see American—cultural life, though, unlike Surfacing, there are virtually no political overtones. Prehistory was perforce prenationalism.)

What is moving in Life Before Man is hard-won; that these characters do so little to solicit our affection very nearly becomes their virtue. By the end of the book Elizabeth, alone and not victorious but still ruthlessly honest with herself, looks at a picture of China and knows that it is propaganda, that it lies because "like cavemen they paint not what they see but what they want." Atwood has uncompromisingly—and with her poet's talent for imagining with a nearly hypnotic concreteness—given us real lives that are far more true than what we want. She has seen them in a highly original perspective. This anatomy of melancholy is Margaret Atwood's finest novel. (pp. 34-5)

Rosellen Brown, "Anatomy of Melancholia," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 3, February 2, 1980, pp. 33-5.

Marilyn French

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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 home in a near-wilderness…. "Surfacing" is vivid and deeply felt.

"Lady Oracle," her third novel, proved a disappointment. Despite some lively sections, it is eventually weighed down by the unwieldy plot. (p. 1)

All three of Miss Atwood's previous novels share a theme that is often called the search for identity but is more accurately defined in her fiction as a search for a better way to be—for a way of life that both satisfies the passionate, needy self and yet is decent, humane and natural. When Miss Atwood has attempted satire in the past, her work has dwindled into triviality. Until now, her not inconsiderable gift has seemed introspective, lyrical, poetic. But in "Life Before Man" she combines several talents—powerful introspection, honesty, satire and a taut, limpid style—to create a splendid, fully integrated work. (pp. 1, 26)

[The life of the novel] lies in its texture, in the densely interwoven feelings, memories and insights of the characters.

Elizabeth is a powerful, but poignant figure…. She is cruel, monstrous, but perceptive to the point of genius. She strains to be a kind, loving mother, but, like Lucifer in Dante's hell, she is a soul freezing in agony. And she survives. Given her pain, her survival is a triumph—and the novelist's triumph as well. Elizabeth's pain is understated, but it is so palpable, so encompassing, that all her behavior—and indeed, the entire novel—is framed by it. Thus, Miss Atwood makes what could be called evil seem not only understandable but also inevitable; and that requires great honesty of thought and expression. Formidable and pitiable, Elizabeth exists in a gaping universe, a void.

Elizabeth's antagonist is Lesje, a younger woman who is a paleontologist…. Sensitive and intelligent, Lesje is an endearing innocent stumbling around in a world booby-trapped by other people's opacities and ambivalences….

Miss Atwood's portrait of Nate is a brilliant depiction of a well-intentioned, liberal, "liberated"—which is to say deracinated—male.

In fact, all of the characters are deracinated. There are no roots, no traditions worth saving….

This novel suggests that we are still living life before man, before the human—as we like to define it—has evolved. Lesje's lover articulates Miss Atwood's concern with man's destruction of nature. Though Chris is a satirical figure, Miss Atwood's serious concern is evident, and it is paralleled by her dissection of cultural traditions and attitudes—of a history that is also destructive of human life. Elizabeth provides a powerful statement of what is, of reality. And Lesje offers perspective on that. Although in the course of the novel, she evolves from "prehistoric" innocence and un-self-consciousness into history, knowledge, pain, maturity …, she consoles herself by thinking that "she is only a pattern."… Humans are a mere dot on the graph of time: we may become extinct, our stories frozen tracks like fossils; we may be only a beginning.

"Life Before Man," however, is not. It is superb, complete. (p. 26)

Marilyn French, "Spouses and Lovers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1980, pp. 1, 26.

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Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 13)


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