‘Morning in the burned house’ by Margaret Atwood

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. Their clothes are still on the hangers,

their dishes piled beside the sink,
which is beside the woodstove
with its grate and sooty kettle,

every detail clear,
tin cup and rippled mirror.
The day is bright and songless,

the lake is blue, the forest watchful.
In the east a bank of cloud
rises up silently like dark bread.

I can see the swirls in the oilcloth,
I can see the flaws in the glass,
those flares where the sun hits them.

I can’t see my own arms and legs
or know if this is a trap or blessing,
finding myself back here, where everything

in this house has long been over,
kettle and mirror, spoon and bowl,
including my own body,

including the body I had then,
including the body I have now
as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy,

bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards
(I can almost see)
in my burning clothes, the thin green shorts

and grubby yellow T-shirt
holding my cindery, non-existent,
radiant flesh. Incandescent.

This poem fascinates me with its treatment of subject-matter that Atwood often visits in her poetry: grief and loss of innocence.

I feel that this piece is exploring the dizzying, almost out-of-body sensation that grief can inject us with. For me, the grief in this poem can and should be interpreted according to the reader. There seems to be room in this poem for grief for the self (that is to say, grief for lost innocence – the child that one once was) or grief for a loved one (particularly a for parent, I think). Of course, these two sorts of grief are in a sense inseparable, and can certainly intertwine.

The opening of this poem is immediately intriguing: “In the burned house I am eating breakfast./ You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast”. I find these lines extremely clever, extremely telling. From the very outset of the piece, the poet is admitting to us that she is a liar, or that she is in denial of her reality. There is something so appealingly confiding, almost intimate in that “You understand”. Atwood seems to be saying: ‘you are like me; you are in denial, too’.  The image of the burned house seems to me to be symbolic of the ruins of a conventional family life, childhood, innocence and stability. The burned house is such a violent image, and it leads me to imagine a brutal loss of innocence via some kind of trauma, or else the sudden loss of a parent or close family member.

The words, “yet here I am” are so incredibly sad. For me, this line evokes the way in which human nature clings to its own innocence, and to love, with all its might. We cannot help ourselves. Even though the house has burned down, the speaker in the poem attempts to retrieve some remnants of normality and stability; here she is, “eating [her non-existent] breakfast”. Breakfast is a very cleverly chosen meal here – it smacks of  all that one connects with a healthy, disciplined, ‘correct’ lifestyle, as one’s sensible mother and grandmother would encourage. Even after the fire – even her home and all the furniture of stability has been destroyed – the speaker seeks normality; safety is seemingly being sought in the memory of what was once good.

As the poem continues, the speaker wonders where her family has gone – her mother and father, her brother and sister. She speculates hopefully about this,  surely inspired by her former life in happy innocence: “Off along the shore,/ perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers”. Although it is clearly not the case as she sits among the ruins of the burned house, the speaker imagines that her family has simply gone for a walk along the beach, and that they will be back soon. The image of the clothes on the hangers, and the dishes piled up by the sink to be washed up, is highly evocative of a house after its occupant has died without warning; nothing in the house was prepared for the sudden departure, and everything is waiting for its owner to return, as thought they had just stepped out for a short walk.

The poet describes the day as “bright and songless”. For me, these words really help to depict the sense of stark grief that haunts the poem – the desolation of absence under the spotlight of a clear morning. The line, “In the east a bank of cloud/ rises up silently like dark bread” again shows the speaker’s need for the language of her former life to describe her desolate reality; in the east, where the the sun should be rising, heralding a new day, there is a bank of cloud rising “like dark bread”. The image of bread rising is clearly inspired by traditional domestic life and possibly the kind of activity that a child might share with her mother in an idyllic childhood – baking bread.

“I can’t see my own arms and legs/ or know if this is a trap or blessing” writes Atwood. I feel that here the idea of a physical loss of innocence is strongly evoked, since the speaker refers to her own body. She is telling us that she has now become estranged or detached from her body, and that she doesn’t understand if this situation is a “trap or blessing”. There is clear confusion here.

The poet can see nothing of herself: “including my own body,/ including the body I had then,/ including the body I have now/ as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy”. The all-purging fire has apparently consumed her entire body. Did she die in the fire, too? Is she a ghost? She seems unsure. Here the speaker acknowledges how radical the change that her loss has had on her – it is a physical loss: she speaks about the body she had before the loss, and the body she had after the loss.

In the final two stanzas Atwood continues with her evocation of physical loss, and the ambiguity about whether or not she has survived the fire continues to linger. We are delivered the image of her “bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards/ (I can almost see)/ in my burning clothes”. Here we are clearly being delivered the sense that the speaker remains innocent before the loss she has suffered (she has “bare child’s feet” that stand innocently upon the scorched floorboards). Does she remain innocent because she has been burned – destroyed – by the fire? Again, we may ask, is she a ghost? I love the final image of that “grubby yellow T-shirt/ holding my cindery, non-existent,/ radiant flesh. Incandescent.” What an outstanding ending to the poem. I detect some sense of triumph on the part of the speaker (who had appeared before as the ‘victim’). She is “non-existent” – she has been consumed by the fire that has burned the house down, but she is “Incandescent” – rising above the destruction, as it were. She is in fact radiant in her preserved innocence that has apparently been distilled by the murderous flames that burned the house down.

burned_house[1]

‘Who Has Seen The Wind?’ by Christina Rossetti

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

I love the singing simplicity of this piece. Rossetti employs her usual chanting, prayer-like tone to express the wonder she feels for the unseen forces of this world.

windy2

‘Especially when the October wind,’ by Dylan Thomas

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.

I’d wanted to squeeze this one in while we were still in the month of October, but I didn’t quite make it in time! Nevermind; this is my belated final October post.

Dylan Thomas is one of those rare and extraordinary poets whose music can entrance and satisfy the reader even before understanding the significance of his words. That was certainly the case for me with this particular poem, whose rhythm and texture of sound were what initially mesmerised me; I had to read it through several times before really getting to grips with its full import (for me). It is a complex piece, and I find it difficult, but personally it speaks to me about poetry, and the process of writing it.

In the first verse, a fiercely evocative image of autumn is delivered; the wind “punishes” the speaker’s hair with “frosty fingers”, and he “walk[s] on fire”. I love this idea of the poet walking on fire (it brings to mind the fiery colours of the autumn leaves creating a carpet underfoot and paints a gorgeous contrast with the “frosty fingers” of the wind). I think that through this opening the poet is telling us that especially when life is hard (“Especially when the October wind” is cruel and “punishes” his vanity) he finds the greatest strength and inspiration; he walks “on fire”.

Thomas tells us that he hears the “raven cough in winter sticks”. I adore this description of the autumnal trees (that are shedding their leaves) as winter sticks. It is such a brutal, honest image. The speaker hears the raven’s “cough”. A cough is just an involuntary noise (the previous line mentions the “noise” of birds), but the sound greatly affects the poet’s “busy heart”. “As she talks” (notice it is the only the poet who can understand the language of the raven) his heart “shudders” and “Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.” The final line of this first stanza is such a exquisite description of the poetic process. The raven, a bird traditionally associated with sinister omens or happenings, inspires the poet – he “drains her words”, and they influence his own.

As we move into the second stanza, Dylan Thomas pursues his theme of language. As well as “shed[ing]…words” from the heart – as well as language/ poetry being a natural form of release for him – it now becomes apparent that language is also a kind of prison: “Shut, too, in a tower of words”. This is the eternal paradox of language: it is the great liberator, but also a great suppressor; there is so much it can say, yet so much it is unable to express. The barrier of language, or his devotion to poetry, isolates him.

Next, the speaker marks the “the wordy shapes of women”on the horizon, and the rows of “star-gestured children”. Dylan Thomas’ love-life, like that of many artists, was notoriously stormy and complicated. To me, these lines evoke the poet’s paradoxical fear and longing for a ‘normal’ romantic and family life. The women mentioned in this poem are mythical (they walk “like the trees”) and are constructed by language only (they are “wordy”). It seems that the poet is aware that they are constructs of his own mind and language.

“Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches”. I love this line, and something about it for me is so typically Dylan Thomas. I love the way it is repeated and reformulated throughout the remainder of the poem. I cannot decide whether he the “you” in this phrase is poetry or a woman. I suppose that it could be both, but I think that my initial instinct was that he is talking about poetry.

So, sometimes it is the “oaken voices” of the trees that inspire him to write; sometimes it is the “water’s speeches” that give him fuel for poetry. Nature gives him tools for creating his art. We can understand here that the speaker experiences the world intensely through language: even the water makes “speeches”.

The “wagging clock” is an unforgettable image. It evokes the persistence of time’s progress and that ever-present ticking. And even time is experienced through language, for the poet: the clock “tells me the hour’s word”, “declaims the morning” and “tells the windy weather in the cock”. It is the narrator of his life, even dictating the weather.

“Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins./ Especially when the October wind… With fists of turnips punishes the land”. I love how Thomas revisits the first line of the poem as we approach its close. The description of the turnips as “fists” is violent and evokes hard times, which Thomas would have known in  wartime Wales. I think it is interesting that the poet now situates himself specifically in “Wales”. He does not often make his poems so obviously personal.

As we come to very end of the piece, Thomas returns to the raven, and her “sins”: “The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry/ Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury./By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.” What is he telling us, here? For me, I feel that there is something very mystical about these lines (the word “spelling” at once evokes magic, but also has the obvious association with writing). It think that Thomas is recognising the sometimes unfathomably mysterious nature of the poetic process. The raven’s heart is drained, for the poet has taken its ink. The “chemic” blood is transformative, alchemizing his poetry.

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas