October 2007

Arts & Letters

‘The Door’ by Margaret Atwood

By Greg McLaren

In predicting that “Time will curve like a wind,” the speaker in ‘One Day You Will Reach ...’ hints at the flow and architecture of this new book of poetry, Margaret Atwood’s first in more than ten years. There is a controlled fury at work in the most powerful of these poems: those concerned with history, politics and, in a familiar Atwoodian voice, those toying with the idea of being prophetic. This mode drives the compositions as they dip into the past or roam a near future that is oddly familiar.

The elegiac tone that whispers through many of these poems is tinged with anger, frustration, dismay and guilt (“Did we cause this wreckage by breathing?”). Loss, here, is a piercing, raw sensation. It always has lasting implications, as in ‘Butterfly’: “the brown meandering river / he was always in some way after that / trying in vain to get back to”. Nothing is secure; everything passes, a series of “pure mementoes / of some once indelible day”. The present and future, because their meaning is undecided, are laden more heavily than the past with gothic undertones and preoccupations. Yet the present seems always about to topple into the past, and there is nothing that long history does not eventually swallow: “We feel everything hovering / on the verge of becoming itself.”

Where this somewhat overlong collection shows its flaws is in the numerous poems that merely repeat themselves or, worse, others. That said, where its focus remains tight, The Door feels sharper and more purposeful than its predecessor, Morning in the Burned House. There is a sense also of a rounding-off of a body of work. As Atwood prepares to mourn a world that is, her poems suggest, at a historical crossroads, her best writing retains a penetrating, self-questioning intelligence that sees clearly and asks itself the right questions. One of the finest poems, ‘The Valley of Heretics’, is compelling in its obliqueness, even as it echoes the sentiment found throughout The Door. It is aware, sorrowful, respectful of otherness: “we breathe them in / with unease, a sense of foreboding: / their ashes are everywhere.”

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