This collection by Atwood explores the view of femininity and female experience. Like her famous novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ there’s a real sense of anger, offset by a directness and black humour.
It is divided into a number of stages. It opens with a draining sense of ennui, illustrated in phrases such as “the century grinds on”. There’s a detachment in the opening poems, peppered with encounters with men, foxes.
The second part of the collection has a sense of Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’. There’s a lot of anger and defiance in these poems, which give voice to women from history most commonly known as muses for great works produced by men. What sets them apart and keeps them fresh is the face that they’re set in a more modern context. There’s the wonderful ‘Manet’s Olympia’ with the bitter, yet humorous finality of:
“You, Sir, are furniture.
The tongue-in-cheek tone of many of these poems lightens, without diluting, the rage, which can be visceral at times, such as when Cressida tells Troilus “No one/ ever told you greed and hunger / are not the same.” ‘Helen of Troy does Counter Dancing’ finishes with
“You think I’m not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.”
The final poem in the section is ‘Sekhmet, the Lion-headed Goddess of War, Violent Storms, Pestilence, and Recovery from Illness, Contemplates the Desert in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’ which finishes the section with a sinister challenge to the typical view of femininity:
that the deity who kills for pleasure
will also heal.”
There’s a shift in tone in the third section. Still challenging society’s view of womenhood, the poems are less angry. Inequality between genders takes centre stage here in lines such as
“When women wash underpants, it’s a chore.
When men do it, an intriguing affliction.” (‘Romantic’)
The poem ‘The Loneliness of the Military Historian’ is powerful in its examination of the roles of women in history, outlining the expectation that they exist to be brutalised and take responsibility for it. By listing the horrors of wars, Atwood gives the poem more powerful, shining a light on the suffering of women. ‘Half-hanged Mary’ continues in a similar vein, visceral in its description of the horrors of the woman’s experience:
“Death sits on my shoulder like a crow
waiting for my squeezed beet
of a heart to burst
so he can eat my eyes.”
There’s a shift in tone in the last two sections. In the fourth, the focus shifts to the poet’s dying father and his stay in hospital. Filled with references to water and sea imagery, there’s a poignancy and tenderness to the descriptions of a man whose mind is failing:
“He was sitting in a chair at dinner
and a wave washed over him
Suddenly, whole beaches
were simply gone.”
The collection ends with a sense of dread, coming full circle as the poet looks back into their personal past. There’s a strong sense of time passing, illustrated by the personal examination of surreal dreams, such as ‘Girl without Hands.’ The title poem ends the collection, built with a sense of bewilderment at the passing of time, reaching for previous manifestations of self.