Two-Headed Poems Summary
by Margaret Atwood

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Two-Headed Poems Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title poem of Two-Headed Poems is, according to the speaker, “not a debate/ but a duet/ with two deaf singers.” In fact, the poem concerns the problems of being a Canadian neighbor to a world power whose corrupt values are expressed in the “duet.” Like the Siamese twins, described as “joined head to head, and still alive,” the United States and Canada are awkwardly joined: “The heads speak sometimes singly, sometimes/ together, sometimes alternately within a poem.” At times, it is clear which country speaks, but not always, for the two countries do share, however reluctantly, some characteristics. The leaders of both countries are criticized, though the leader who “is a monster/ sewn from dead soldiers” is an American president of the Vietnam era, a recurrent motif in the poem. Yet Atwood is as concerned about language as she is with actions, the nonverbal gestures. One “head” asks, “Whose language/ is this anyway?” The corruption of Canadian English, itself a political act, stems from the passive nature of a people content to be Americanized, to shut down “the family business” that was “too small anyway/ to be, as they say, viable.” The Canadians whose identity comes from “down there” in the United States are associated with “nouns,” but they are also hostile (the candy hearts become “snipers”) and impatient to act on their own:

Our dreams thoughare of freedom, a hungerfor verbs, a songwhich rises double, gliding beside usover all these rivers, borders,over ice and clouds.

The Canadian head calls for action to complete the sentence by combining with nouns, and the resultant language should not be a political statement, but a celebratory song, a “double” that transcends borders. The dreams of freedom are, however, only futile dreams, and the closing images are of being “mute” and of “two deaf singers.” Communication between the two “heads” is, by definition, impossible, and Atwood clearly implies that the American/Canadian coupling that impedes both countries is an aberration of nature.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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