Morning in the Burned House

by Margaret Atwood

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What is the meaning of "A Visit" by Margaret Atwood?

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The speaker of the poem is visiting an elderly man who is losing his memory. In trying to help him remember, the speaker suggests they talk about axes and the many kinds of wood. The toolbox refuses to reveal its verbs, but in the end it doesn't matter because their conversation isn't helping anyway.

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“A Visit” is written in mournful resignation from the perspective of one visiting an elderly man who is losing his memory. “Only one day remains,/The one you’re in,” Atwood writes, and in the next verse,

The memory is no friend.
It can only tell you
what you no longer have

The feeling of loss is heavy in this poem, manifested in the burden of caring for someone who can no longer remember details of his past. We learn much about the man: he can no longer use his right hand, possibly due to an accident. We know he was a carpenter, for in an attempt to focus his memory on things he is familiar with, the speaker suggests talking “about axes” and “the many kinds of wood.” He or she speaks with patience, placating the man when he gets confused, speaking in consoling tones: “Let’s not panic,” the speaker says, and attempts to direct the conversation toward building, and yet nothing works. “The toolbox/refuses to reveal its verbs,” and all the tools within are stripped of their names, becoming only conglomerates of the materials used to make them. The personification of the toolbox here suggests the obstinacy of memory loss, the tenacity with which it clings to its victim.

In the final two verses of the poem, when the man has confessed that he recognizes nothing but his bed, that which is his constant companion, the speaker resigns him- or herself to the futility of these memory exercises. “Better,” the speaker says,

to watch the stream
that flows across the floor
and is made of sunlight,
the forest made of shadows;
better to watch the fireplace
which is now a beach.

This could be in reference to the total displacement of the man in time and space, who believes himself to be out in the natural world, or it could be a metaphor; either way, it makes the case for relenting – giving in to the natural processes at play and coming to terms with the fact that nothing can be done to halt the degeneration of memory.

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