Margaret Atwood’s poetry shares certain signature qualities with her prose: uncanny powers of observation, unsentimental grappling with reality, playful use of point of view, powerful allusions to myth and history, and compelling use of the English language. What is most interesting in this collection is the range of Atwood’s interests and expertise. Her voice is compelling and authentic whether she is imagining “Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia,” or exploring “The Loneliness of the Military Historian.”
The collection is divided into five sections. Section two is particularly interesting for its hard-headed feminist reexamination of various female archetypes. In “Miss July Grows Older,” the reader is encouraged to empathize with an aging and maturing calendar girl. “Manet’s Olympia” is a Pater-like, impressionistic view of the famous painting which has scandalized and titillated so many generations of art lovers. In “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing,” myth and contemporary views of women coalesce and explode in a new kind of torch song. Sekmet, Daphne, and Cressida all have their stories rethought and reanimated by Atwood’s fertile imagination.
Section five of the collection will call strongly to anyone who has ever experienced the lingering death of a loved one. Atwood confronts the death of her father in words and phrases of haunting beauty and brutal honesty. She explores the pain, bewilderment, and sometimes hope of survivors in surprisingly gritty detail.
MORNING IN THE BURNED HOUSE is one of those unusual books of poetry that can be read and appreciated even by readers who do not usually think of themselves as poetry readers.