I recently read Margaret Atwood’s Poems 1976–1986, a collection published by Virago Press. While doing so I tweeted an excerpt on her birthday, before I knew it was her birthday: a happy synchronicity. Below are some lines that deal explicitly with language and words.
From ‘Four Small Elegies’:
A language is not words only,
it is the stories
that are told in it,
the stories that are never told.
This verse echoes something Muriel Rukeyser once wrote (‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’), but with a lurch into loss. Atwood’s ‘Two-Headed Poems’ returns repeatedly to the subject of a language’s decline or supersession by another:
This rubble is the future,
pieces of bureaucrats, used
bumper stickers, public names
returnable as bottles.
Our fragments made us.
What will happen to the children,
not to mention the words
we’ve been stockpiling for ten years now,
defining them, freezing them, storing
them in the cellar.
Anyone asked us who we were, we said
just look down there.
[. . .]
Those south of us are lavish
with their syllables. They scatter, we
eat their words, we eat
each other’s, words, hearts, what’s
[. . .]
We wanted to describe the snow,
the snow here, at the corner
of the house and orchard
in a language so precise
and secret it was not even a code, it was snow,
there could be no translation.
To save this language
we needed echoes,
we needed to push back
the other words, the coarse ones
spreading themselves everywhere
like thighs or starlings.
[. . .]
Language, like the mouths
that hold and release
it, is wet & living, each
word is wrinkled
with age, swollen
with other words, with blood, smoothed by the numberless
flesh tongues that have passed across it.
Your language hangs around your neck,
a noose, a heavy necklace;
each word is empire,
each word is vampire and mother.
I apologise for cutting the poem up like this, but ‘Two-Headed Poems’ is a long poem, 11½ pages.
Finally, one full, short, sensuous poem by Atwood, titled ‘Nothing’:
Nothing like love to put blood
back in the language,
the difference between the beach and its
discrete rocks & shards, a hard
cuneiform, and the tender cursive
of waves; bones & liquid fishegg, desert
& saltmarsh, a green push
out of death. The vowels plump
again like lips or soaked fingers, and the fingers
themselves move around these
softening pebbles as around skin. The sky’s
not vacant and over there but close
against your eyes, molten, so near
you can taste it. It tastes of
salt. What touches
you is what you touch.