Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Margaret Atwood: Songs of the Transformer, Songs of the Transformed

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Margaret Atwood: Songs of the Transformer, Songs of the Transformed

Article excerpt


When Lady Oracle Joan Foster was a fat little girl, she seemed a "huge edgeless cloud of inchoate matter which refused to be shaped into anything." The body of Margaret Atwood's work, too, large and recalcitrant, refuses to fall into critics' patterns. She has produced twelve poetry volumes, three novels, a book about Canadian literature, assorted scripts for television, a collection of short stories, even comic strips published in Toronto papers.

But it isn't the quantity of her work that causes the problem, nor even the variety of her forms. Rather, the shifts in tone, the changes in persona, are so radical as to seem, in Joyce Carol Pates' words, "different 'voices'" of the author, and in Atwood's own words, "not just a somewhat different personality, but an almost totally different one" in each work. For instance: in her novel Surfacing, Atwood strips down her narrator's psyche and, with the help of a ritual submersion in a clear wilderness lake, takes her to the heart of the mind. The language is lean and humorless as a high tension wire; central metaphors are a murdered heron and a dead foetus. Yet her novel Lady Oracle, Atwood's narrator fakes her own death by drowning in oily Lake Ontario, writes trashy passion novels, and finds a central metaphor in a fat lady ballerina who wears a pink tutu and spangles. The novel sprawls.

Atwood herself ascribes this variety to the nature of writing: different forms require different consciousnesses "if you think of writing as expressing 'itself,' rather than 'the writer.'" It is like her, though, to say something like this. For throughout all Margaret Atwood's writings--whatever form they take--is a sometimes brooding, sometimes laughing fascination with form itself. The search is for

   something not lost or hidden
   but just not found yet
   that informs, holds together
   this confusion, this largeness
   and dissolving:
   not above or behind
   or within it, but one
   with it: an
   something too huge and simple
   for us to see.

First, Atwood questions the sources of form, finding alternative shapes in nature and in the traditional Western mind. From the mind come straight lines: "houses in pedantic rows," furrows, fences, driveways. As "the right hand" in "The Right Hand Fights the Left," the mind

   ... arranges the nouns it has killed
   in plaza windows
   it is odourless and dry,
   it squeezes and apple plasma
   drips from its fist.

   It oils itself and makes lists
   of its enemies, it swivels
   on the wrist like a spy, a radar,
   a tentacled silver eye.

By contrast, nature's lines are curves. Those squared off houses will capsize and "slide,/obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers." The pioneer, trapped in his vision of order as rows and fences, finds "the fields defend themselves with fences/ in vain: everything / is getting in." And, as the "left hand," nature is a "tangle/ of liquid roots and the quick and sprawl/ of tendrils over the earth."

Nature seems clearly more powerful. In "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer," rejecting curve for line, nature for mind, the pioneer (a land Ahab) goes mad: in the end, "the unnamed/ whale invaded." Yet there is, Atwood suggests, an alternative to this battle of forms. She "tends to be on the side of the curve"; the "necessity for the straight lines is not in Nature but in his [the pioneer's] head."

   If he had known unstructured
   space is a deluge
   and stocked his log houseboat
   with all the animals

   even the wolves,

   he might have floated.

The protagonist in Surfacing, choosing to allow nature into her mind, creates "a new kind of centerfold," a "natural woman ... face dirt-caked and streaked, skin grimed and scabby, hair like a frayed bathmat stuck with leaves and twigs." Thus she saves herself.

Even though nature proves to be a more salutary source of form than the leveling mind, natural forms, when pressed to their limits, may restrict and destroy. …

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