poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario. She earned a B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto, and an M.A. from Harvard.

She is the author of over fifteen books of poetry, including Eating Fire: Selected Poems, 1965-1995 (Virago Press Limited, 1998); Morning in the Burned House (1995), which was a co-winner of the Trillium Award; Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 (1987); Two-Headed Poems (1978); You Are Happy (1975); and The Animals in That Country (1968).

Among her novels are Oryx and Crake: A Novel (McClelland & Stewart, 2003); The Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize and the Dashell Hammett Prize; Alias Grace (1996); The Robber Bride (1993); The Handmaid's Tale (1986), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award; Bodily Harm (1982); Lady Oracle (1976); and The Edible Woman (1970). Her collections of short fiction include A Quiet Game: And Other Early Works (1997), Good Bones (1992), Wilderness Tips and Other Stories (1991), Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (1983), and Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1977).

She is the author of four collections of nonfiction: Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982), Days of the Rebels 1815-1840 (1977), and Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972). Her books for children include Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995), For the Birds (1990), and Up in the Tree (1978).

Atwood's work has been translated into many languages and published in more than twenty-five countries. Among her numerous honors and awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Molson Award, the Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award, and a Canada Short Fiction Award. In 1986 Ms Magazine named her Woman of the Year.

She has served as a Writer-In-Residence and a lecturer at many colleges and universities. Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto.

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing

Margaret Atwood, 1939
The world is full of women
who'd tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of 
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent 
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they'd say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I've a choice
of how, and I'll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it's all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything's for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads 
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge 
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can't. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape's been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there's only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it's the smiling
tires me out the most. 
This, and the pretence
that I can't hear them.
And I can't, because I'm after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don't let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I'll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner. 
That's what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body. 
They'd like to see through me, 
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look--my feet don't hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I'm rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I'm not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you'll burn.

From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. Published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Co., published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, Inc.

From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. Published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Co., published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, Inc.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario. She earned a

by this poet

poem

It was taken some time ago. 
At first it seems to be 
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks 
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner 
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree 
(balsam or spruce) emerging 
poem

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

poem
In the burned house I am eating breakfast.
You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast,
yet here I am.

The spoon which was melted scrapes against 
the bowl which was melted also.
No one else is around.

Where have they gone to, brother and sister,
mother and father? Off along the shore,
perhaps.