Last Updated on January 17, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665
Margaret Atwood's poem is sixteen words, eighteen syllables, four lines, and two stanzas long, barely longer than a haiku. It is printed without punctuation or capitalization, and the title is the same as the first line (often printed in square brackets to emphasize that it is mere repetition). The poem consists of two images—or perhaps one should say that it is one image changed, distorted, or clarified in the second stanza.
The poem's first stanza gives a simple image, though an artificial one. A hook-and-eye fastening is one of the simplest ways of holding garments together. It has been used at least since the fourteenth century and was particularly common in women's garments designed to restrict and constrict the body, the most obvious example being the corset. Even today, one is most likely to encounter a hook-and-eye fastening on the back of a woman's brassiere.
The image of the hook and eye in the first stanza, therefore, is superficially a reference to two things that fit together perfectly. Such images are common in love poetry and often include food pairings (e.g., "we go together like strawberries and cream"). However, there are several things to notice about this particular pairing. One is that, as mentioned above, the purpose of the hook-and-eye fastening is generally to constrict a woman's body. The second is that this image somehow manages to be both domestic and coldly mechanical. A hook and eye is the type of image that might occur to a woman used to thinking about clothes and perhaps even making her own, but it is not a particularly charming or romantic object: two cold, functional pieces of metal gripping together.
Finally, there is the fact that most of these traditional romantic pairings, like strawberries and cream, leave it ambiguous as to who is the strawberries and who is the cream. It would seem pedantic to ask, for they merge into each other perfectly in exactly the way a hook and eye do not. The hook and eye, on the other hand, cling together but remain separate, although the hook penetrates the eye. The potential violence of this image is underscored by the speaker's phrasing. She does not say, "we fit together." Instead, she says, "you fit into me."
Although there is much to analyze in this image, part of the poem's effectiveness is in its sheer brevity. Before one has noticed much about the first image apart from its literal meaning, one moves on to the shock of the second image. The visceral horror of this is difficult to overstate. The razor cutting open an eye in Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel's film Un Chien Andalou remains one of the most shocking images in world cinema; too, the image of a fish hook digging into an eye is inseparable in the imagination from the intense physical pain which would accompany this image in real life.
At the same time, the reader can see the symbolism of the fish hook, a traditionally masculine object in the way that the hook-and-eye fastening is a feminine one, and the use of which is to drag a fish out of its natural environment and to its death. The fish is mercifully unaware of what awaits it when it swallows the hook—but the speaker's eye is horrifically open, meaning that she is all too alive to the terrible thing that is happening to her.
This poem's use of a pun is unexpected, since puns are more often associated with light verse than with images of horror. The poem obviously owes something to the tradition of Greek and Latin epigram, perhaps especially to Martial, but even Martial is never as bitter as this, and very seldom as succinct. The poem is only one syllable longer than a haiku, and the icy clarity of the final image accords with the imagist and modernist use of that form in the early twentieth century. Again, however, the image itself is much more disturbing.