Margaret Atwood’s most recent volume of poetry is judiciously selected from six previous collections of verse: The Circle Game (1966), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), and You Are Happy (1974). Since her first relatively static volume, Atwood has shown a growing mastery of her art: a deeper, more intense sensibility. From her earlier concerns with landscape and totemic objects, she has turned increasingly to themes of psychosexual relationships. Perhaps most widely acclaimed as a feminist poet, she reveals in Selected Poems a wide range of interests that include—but go beyond—her consciousness of a woman struggling with the “power politics” of a male-dominated world. She also shows the conflicts between untamed nature and encroaching civilization; between primitivism and social organization; between intuition and knowledge, and between the unconscious and the conscious. Like Theodore Roethke, she is a visionary poet whose eye penetrates surfaces to see inward. Each of her poems may be described as a “journey to the interior” (the title of significant verses by both Roethke and Atwood), during which the external world is shattered, and the poet emerges at the center of awareness.
For Atwood, awareness requires the perception of a divided reality: that of objects, things, and essences. Objects have a place in the landscape, a fullness and density. But they are merely substances unless they have been shaped by the imagination. For example, in “Some Objects of Wood and Stone,” Atwood describes pieces of material that have some significance apart from their obvious characteristics. Shaped into totems, the wooden figures possess a secret soul, a mystery. They are contrasted with “other wooden people”—that is to say, dull tourists without a sense of imagination—who take pictures of the totems, oblivious to their sacred reality. Atwood believes that a mystery passes between an object, such as a carved animal figure, and the shaman who carved the piece. Long ago, primitive man understood the connection between object and spirit; but modern man, with his camera and his collection of trivial “replicas and souvenirs,” has somehow forgotten how to connect with nature and has lost his soul. To discover the secret reality of things—of totems in nature—the poet abjures civilization. Instead of making progress, civilized man has retrogressed spiritually, has lost touch with essences.
To demonstrate her thesis, Atwood contrasts the pristine wilderness with the bustling, vulgar cities that have sprawled over the land, violating nature with brutal force. She sees each “outpost” of a city as a rape upon forests and plains. Yet man’s brutality is momentary; it will pass, whereas the wilderness endures, for it must finally absorb the cities. In “A Place: Fragments,” the poet expresses her faith (a Wordsworthian faith) that an inner harmony resides in the center of things: “An other sense tugs at us:/we have lost something,/ . . . something too huge and simple/for us to see.”
Against the reality of essence, perceived through visionary awareness, is the vulgar reality of man’s brutal presence. In “The animals in that country,” Atwood shows how the human animal has taken away the soul from real animals, so that “Their deaths are not elegant.” In “At the tourist centre in Boston, she describes “grinning” tourists, vapid and ignorant, who pose beside “blownup snapshots” of the wilderness without ever seeing into the reality of things. And in “Roominghouse, winter,” she describes the banal horror of a civilized outpost intruding upon the wilderness: “What disturbs me in the bathroom/is the unclaimed toothbrush.” She cries: “We must...
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