Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)

It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?

Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.

The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”

These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.

There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.

Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.

In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.

The door swings open:

O god of hinges,

god of long voyages,

you have kept faith.

It’s dark in there.

You confide yourself to the darkness.

You step in.

The door swings closed.

Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)

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15 responses

  1. OK. I was going to say I don’t like her work, but I daren’t now. Clearly I’ll have to look more widely at what she has to offer.

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    1. Poetry, satire, science fiction, comics, feminism, historical fiction, literary essays, hot takes on current events, children’s books … she really has just about written it all!

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  2. I like Margaret Atwood, but I don’t get some of these reading months. More general ones are fine, like for example, Reading Russian Month (I just made that up) or Novellas in November, but I don’t really want to read books by a single author every year. Also, there are so many challenges like this and I don’t like so much of my reading to be determined by them, so I’ve stuck pretty much to Literary Wives, the Classics Club Spins and the [year] Club. Of course, I have my own ridiculous challenge going on now, reading (mostly by myself) Thirkell’s Barsetshire series in order. Only a year to go.

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    1. This was the brainchild of a couple of Canadian bloggers and has been running for five years now. Atwood has such an extensive back catalogue that each year I have found something different and interesting to read, and I’ve found it rewarding. Annabel (Annabookbel) has run a couple of single-author fortnights for Paul Auster and Iain Banks, and I took part. Sometimes it’s more like just a personal challenge for the blogger, but others can join in too.

      There’s a balance to be struck between one’s own ideas and collective challenges. I remember one blogger saying she did 50+ challenges one year! (But then decided that was a one-off.)

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      1. Wow! That’s a lot!

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      2. Of course, I’ve also got these literary prize challenges going, so that determines some of my reading.

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  3. I’ve never really read much of Atwood’s poetry, and I have no idea why! Guess I was just busy with her novels and stories. 🙂 clearly I have work to do. I haven’t been able to fit in any of her stuff this year, after participating the last few years, but yay, Marcie! Yay, you!

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    1. There’s always next year!

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  4. hahaha, I have read a lot of Atwood and I’m not a huge fan of most of it – though I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t like her’ because I do like a few of her short stories plus The Handmaid’s Tale. Some of the things I don’t like about her writing do persist across genre, I’m afraid.

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    1. Of the 24 of her books that I’ve read, I’ve rated 17 of them 3 stars. So I wouldn’t call her a favourite. And yet I keep reading her!

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  5. MA is so smart, so versatile, so active, so generous to other writers, so funny, and so impressive in many other ways, one can’t help but return to her work over and over. There’s always something there to gain. If I can be anything like her at the age of 83 I will be happy. 🙂
    I don’t feel totally comfortable with poetry, but I do like Margaret’s (and feel like I know what she’s writing about!).

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    1. She’s a legend! And I like that her poetry is so accessible.

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  6. I read this on my phone and I think something must have gone awry with my reply and my note for it: I’m sorry! You already have heard that I’m fond of this collection. A young (and daring, for her time) teacher in a summer school class (i.e. she couldn’t have gotten away with such a renegade choice in the traditional academic year) introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s poetry (with a single poem I’m still fond of); but it was The Door that made me realise that I could understand MA’s poetry and enjoy it (almost? very nearly?) as much as prose. Is this the volume with the owl and pussycat poem? I think so? But I’m feeling too lazy to grab a stool and reach for the A shelf! Thank you for reading along, especially in such a challenging (and, also, novella-busy) month for you.

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    1. Indeed, it has the owl and the pussycat update poem — that’ll be a Book Serendipity moment in my next roundup! Here and in my review of Dearly I’ve tried to advocate for Atwood as a great ‘gateway drug’ for those wary of poetry. It’s all comprehensible and pretty straightforward, but still artful.

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