A language so precise and secret

margaret atwood poems 1976-1986 virago book coverI 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
hoard. Birds
eat their words, we eat
each other’s, words, hearts, what’s
the difference?

[. . .]

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.

7 Responses to A language so precise and secret

  1. old gobbo says:

    Dear Mr Carey

    Thank you very much indeed for this post. Like most (all?) of your readers, I imagine, I have long admired Ms Atwood, but I did not know her poems – which I will now remedy. You seem to have caught precisely the additional element Atwood brings here to language as story in the Elegies; and I am reminded, both here and in the snow extract from “Two-Headed Poems”, of Pierre Menard’s effort to re-write Don Quixote. They also raises some of the issues discussed in the comments in Language Log under “no word for fair” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1080), and indeed Humpty-Dumpty-ism generally. “Fail better”, indeed.

    I wonder if the sentence
    “Birds
    Eat their words”
    is a misprint, and should be “eat their worms”, since otherwise it seems to go against the sense of lavish distribution carried on from the previous sentence, suggesting one would expect birds to spit out (or whatever) their “words”. But I will have to read the whole thing – or is there reference to some ornithological study of the nature of birdsong ? Again in “Nothing”, I was vaguely puzzled by the concatenation of desert and saltmarsh with the rounded waves, to me two very different vistas – at least in the case of saltmarsh, but I will have to think about it.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re very welcome, Old Gobbo. I see what you mean about the LLog discussion, and it echoes a conversation I had with a friend recently about the subtleties and ties to place and history that were lost when Irish became a minority language on this island.
      I don’t think ‘Birds / eat their words’ is a misprint, even if its meaning is ambiguous or elusive or even paradoxical in ways. (Birds aren’t a recurring motif in the poem, except for the mention of starlings.)

  2. I had no idea that the pieces you shared on Twitter were just excerpts from much longer poems. It makes more sense now that I know that.

    Taken out of context, the Two-Headed Poems excerpt (for example) is merely a well-crafted sentence with randomly-inserted line breaks. That is not poetry. Line breaks in free verse are there to artfully control the reader’s attention, but the gap between “each” and “word” … or the short line ending with “swollen” followed by the long line ending in “numberless” … did not direct my attention to the poet’s meaning; they obscured it.

    But the fact that the whole poem is much longer changes everything, because breaks that seem random and even counterproductive in a short excerpt may serve a discernable purpose given the bigger picture. Whether they succeed or not I won’t say, but I can see how a long line in the midst of short ones might be there to jolt the reader into looking twice.

    Incidentally, I hope you saw my recent post about poetry on G+ (https://plus.google.com/110034467718877768751/posts/a3QXTbs1WEC). I would welcome your thoughts, or those of your readers.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Prefacing the excerpts on Twitter with the word ‘From’ was meant to signal that they were from the poems I then named. I’m glad the lines make more sense to you now. I found her line breaks very effective, not just for guiding attention but for rhythm and novelty.

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