The Door by Margaret Atwood, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007
The Door makes for a perfect read on a spring afternoon. Divided into five sections, the fifty odd poems touch upon various themes, ranging from the private, to the personal, to the public, and back to the private where, once again “the door swings closed”. The poems in the first section reverberate with loss and longing when the speaker, in a child-like voice, mourns the death of a pet cat, or describes the dwindling figure of her ailing mother. Critical analysis of the poems would yield a potpourri of discussions regarding agency and representational politics, but one does not even need to go into close readings of the poems in order to encounter (and enjoy) Atwood’s voice – sharp and clear – echoing through the “exploding / syllables [that] litter the lawn”. The politics of the self mingles with larger politics, swimming through metanarratives such as feminism (and even perhaps questioning its usual tropes). Conscious of being an onlooker – an outsider, a distanced gaze – the speaker observes a woman learning to write for the first time:
“She looks up, smiles
as if apologizing,
but she’s not. Not this time. She did it right.
What does the mud say?
Her name. We can’t read it.
But we can guess. Look at her face:
Joyful Flower? A Radiant One? Sun on Water?”
Atwood’s poetic persona, often overshadowed by her fame as a novelist, seems to reassert its position of importance when the poet herself writes of poets: the speaker turns to the figure of the poet, trying to grapple with the incredulity of poetic creation before endorsing how the poet cannot but be a poet. The trials and tribulations, as also the thrill, of being a poet is what makes her explode certitudes and look between the interstices of life itself.
Atwood’s romanticism goes hand in hand with her cynicism when she dwells on the subject of war in the latter part of the book. The lines which immediately follow a poem titled “War Photo 2” are:
“Even if you had remained alive,
we would never have spoken.
I can’t speak your absence for you.
(Why is it then I can hear you so clearly?)”
She de-familiarises our familiar objects of use such as the classic shirt, teetering us back to the horrors of war:
“White cotton T-shirt: an innocent garment then.
It made its way to us from the war, but we didn’t know that.
and the white, white flowers we hold out in our fists,
believing – still – that they are flowers of peace.”
The common thread that links the poems together is the strong undercurrent of compassion flowing through the lines. It is this very compassion that makes the poet reflect with as much melancholy on the death of a pet as on Death, or on lovers in their old age. Despite their irony and cynicism, the poems betray a certain compassion which tugs at the heart of a romantic. As you settle down on a couch, set your cup of steaming coffee on the window sill, and lose yourself behind The Door, the vividness of the poems silently and surreptitiously transport you to another world where you see eroded ecosystems, war-torn soldiers, possessed poets, and old couples hobbling their way through life. And all the while Atwood murmurs in your ears:
“That’s what I do:
I tell dark stories
before and after they come true.”
– Adreja Mukherji