Posts filed under ‘Margaret Atwood’

The Woman who could not live with her faulty heart

Margaret Atwood


I do not mean the symbol
of love, a candy shape
to decorate cakes with,
the heart that is supposed
to belong or break;

I mean this lump of muscle
that contracts like a flayed biceps,
purple-blue, with its skin of suet,
its skin of gristle, this isolate,
this caved hermit, unshelled
turtle, this one lungful of blood,
no happy plateful.

All hearts float in their own
deep oceans of no light,
wetblack and glimmering,
their four mouths gulping like fish.
Hearts are said to pound:
this is to be expected, the heart’s
regular struggle against being drowned.

But most hearts say, I want, I want,
I want, I want. My heart
is more duplicitious,
though no twin as I once thought.
It says, I want, I don’t want, I
want, and then a pause.
It forces me to listen,

and at night it is the infra-red
third eye that remains open
while the other two are sleeping
but refuses to say what it has seen.

It is a constant pestering
in my ears, a caught moth, limping drum,
a child’s fist beating
itself against the bedsprings:
I want, I don’t want.
How can one live with such a heart?

Long ago I gave up singing
to it, it will never be satisfied or lulled.
One night I will say to it:
Heart, be still,
and it will.

More Atwood. This one taken from her 1978 collection, Two-Headed Poems.

I’m not that fond of the beginning of this poem, but after the first couple of stanzas, it really takes off. I love the way Atwood captures the faulty rhythm of the woman’s heart in words, and the sudden burst of metaphors in the penultimate stanza (“a caught moth, limping drum. / a child’s fist beating / itself against the bedsprings”).

The poem is also a good illustration of something I alluded to in my last post – Atwood’s talent for myth-making. The Woman with the Faulty Heart is one of those memorable characters who, once you have read about them, will never leave you. You can imagine a whole story about her, perhaps even an entire novel. And it’s Atwood’s ability to conjure up that world of possibilities, the tantalising promise of all the stories that must lie behind this woman, that makes this such a powerful poem.


August 16, 2006 at 11:06 pm 10 comments

We are hard on each other

Margaret Atwood



We are hard on each other
and call it honesty,
choosing our jagged truths
with care and aiming them across
the neutral table.

The things we say are
true; it is our crooked
aims, our choices
turn them criminal.


Of course your lies
are more amusing:
you make them new each time.

Your truths, painful and boring
repeat themselves over & over
perhaps because you own
so few of them


A truth should exist,
it should not be used
like this. If I love you

is that a fact or a weapon?


Does the body lie
moving like this, are these
touches, hairs, wet
soft marble my tongue runs over
lies you are telling me?

Your body is not a word,
it does not lie or
speak truth either.

It is only
here or not here.

(from Power Politics, 1971)

For all of Atwood’s (entirely deserved) renown as a novelist, she is, in my opinion, at least as good a poet as she is a writer of prose. Her poems can be brutally intense, but also breathlessly intimate and they resonate with a kind of mythmaking magic, with the ability to pick the telling detail, strip it of all context, an so make the specific universal. They are often love poems, or at least poems about love, but their tone is unsentimental, even uncompromising. They are, as the title of the collection that today’s poem is taken from suggests, explorations of the politics of sex and power, relationships and imagination. Atwood is not, in my view, the most consistent of poets, and many of her early poems seem fidgety and fragmented; nor is her language, her choice of phrases or words, always compelling. But at her best she is a poet of considerable lyrical power, mostly because she has the ability to reach down to the very heart of a feeling, and render what seemed unspeakable into words.

Today’s poem is one of my personal favourites, and a good illustration of Atwood’s strengths as a poet. The language here is simple and direct, thus creating a deliberate sense of honesty. But the real force of the poem comes from Atwood’s very real understanding of the dynamics of relationships. There are parts of this poem (part ii for instance) where Atwood is just being clever, and these bits are good for little more than a quick smile, but there are other parts where Atwood’s insight hits you with the force of recognition, articulating feelings you’ve always had (“If I love you / Is that a fact or a weapon”). And it’s those lines that make this a poem you not only want to re-read, but want to remember.



The Atwood page at the Canadian Poetry Website – check out the Writing Philosophy Link which contains a charming lecture on poetry.

Atwood poems over at Minstrelsanother old favourite

August 7, 2006 at 10:14 pm 5 comments