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Poetry > Aug 8 - Cell - Margaret Atwood

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message 1: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 10102 comments

Regarded as one of Canada’s finest living writers, Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist, and environmental activist. Her books have received critical acclaim in the United States, Europe, and her native Canada, and she has received numerous literary awards, including the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Governor General’s Award, twice. Atwood’s critical popularity is matched by her popularity with readers; her books are regularly bestsellers.

by Margaret Atwood

Now look objectively. You have to
admit the cancer cell is beautiful.
If it were a flower, you'd say, How pretty,
with its mauve centre and pink petals

or if a cover for a pulpy thirties
sci-fi magazine, How striking;
as an alien, a success,
all purple eye and jelly tentacles
and spines, or are they gills,
creeping around on granular Martian
dirt red as the inside of the body,

while its tender walls
expand and burst, its spores
scatter elsewhere, take root, like money,
drifting like a fiction or
miasma in and out of people's
brains, digging themselves
industriously in. The lab technician

says, It has forgotten
how to die. But why remember? All it wants is more
amnesia. More life, and more abundantly. To take
more. To eat more. To replicate itself. To keep on
doing those things forever. Such desires
are not unknown. Look in the mirror.

message 2: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 10102 comments What moods does this poem cycle you through?

For me, it opens like a flower. Does it seem that way to you?

message 3: by Barbara (last edited Aug 08, 2010 12:19PM) (new)

Barbara | 6960 comments Yes, it does, Ruth. And, it also lets us see these scary cancer cells through the eye of a scientist. Somehow, that removes the monster quality, breaks it down to something you can battle.

I love the first two lines. Everything else builds from that.

And, in a bit of serendipity, we are also reading a short story by Atwood on the story conference.

message 4: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1454 comments Margaret Atwood's poetry has such potency for me. I think one reason I love it so much is the way she carves her big notions down into such sharp, sharp images, like the last line of this poem:

... Look in the mirror.

Of her various media, I return to her poems frequently, her stories too, but less eagerly. The novels of hers that I've read or heard about seem like longish extensions of her crystallized poetic insights.

message 5: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7527 comments I guess I am not objective. Beauty can be deceptive. It actually traumatized me..

message 6: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 856 comments I like the way the cancer cell is just treated as another natural occurrence with its own beauty, like every other part of nature. She doesn't see it as the enemy here. just as a living thing with a voracious appetite. It only becomes personal when the body that it's consuming belongs to you. I don't see it here as something to battle; I see it as something understandable that just wants to live and grow - like us.

message 7: by Ruth (last edited Aug 09, 2010 11:48AM) (new)

Ruth | 10102 comments She speaks of the cancer cell as if it were a sentient being, which of course, it's not. But it works as a poetic conceit.

But then she turns the tables on us, who are sentient.

To eat more. To replicate itself. To keep on
doing those things forever. Such desires
are not unknown. Look in the mirror.

Am I the only one who sees this last stanza as not exactly flattering?

message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7527 comments No I seen it. But who likes to admit they are like a cancer cell wanting more from the people and things around them.

message 9: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 10102 comments Carol (Kitty) wrote: "No I seen it. But who likes to admit they are like a cancer cell wanting more from the people and things around them."

Nobody, of course. But sometimes it does us good.

message 10: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7527 comments I know I have been doing that a lot lately.
Soul searching that is.

message 11: by Tango (new)

Tango | 75 comments That's quite a unique perspective that Atwood presents. The last stanza does create quite a punch. I think a cancer patient would find it hard to appreciate this one.

message 12: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 10102 comments I've had cancer, Tango, and I think it's one reason why I do appreciate this poem.

message 13: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7527 comments I did also and you can't let it control you or your life. But I do get paranoid if I have something unusual going on in my body. initially the poem sent me reeling, but on subsequent reading it means to me people can be as invasive as cancer .

message 14: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 856 comments Ruth wrote: "Am I the only one who sees this last stanza as not exactly flattering? "

Not flattering at all! We are presented as mindlessly moving through life, consuming whatever we encounter, spreading everywhere without a thought about the result. Pretty accurate, but not flattering!

message 15: by Tango (new)

Tango | 75 comments Ruth wrote: "I've had cancer, Tango, and I think it's one reason why I do appreciate this poem."

Ruth - I guess that just goes to show the power of poetry and of Atwood in particular. I was thinking of friends and relatives when I read it and now that I've re-read it after your comment I can see how the poem might offer an alternate view of something I have always imagined to be like an enemy/invader.

message 16: by Michael (new)

Michael Canoeist (michaelcanoeist) It seemed terrific to me, until that last sentence. We readers could get the point all too clearly from the lush honesty of what went before it. That note of didacticism seems so harsh and unnecessary, like a schoolteacher banging her pointer on the desk.

message 17: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 10102 comments A valid criticism, Michael. I just looked at the poem again. I'm sure I would have gotten the point if she had said

Such desires
are not unknown to us.

But then, I don't think of Atwood as a subtle poet.

message 18: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 611 comments Who's the speaker in the poem?

message 19: by Michael (last edited Aug 12, 2010 05:35AM) (new)

Michael Canoeist (michaelcanoeist) Ruth, your ending would have worked for me. Yoby, can writing be good (really good) if the author chooses to talk down to her audience? It seems to me that the best writing makes us its accomplices, its partners -- not its objects. Reading this Atwood poem, I wonder if that final line wasn't clear in her mind even as she worked through the rest of it. Was she going to teach us a lesson? I'd rather she shared her discovery, her perception. And, for some readers, maybe that's exactly what she was doing. For me, though, it didn't read that way. (Although it must be noted the poem begins with an instruction, too. Maybe this is just her natural tone?)

message 20: by Michael (new)

Michael Canoeist (michaelcanoeist) Read those two lines again, Yoby.

Yoby wrote: "... don't try to convince other people, who are grateful for these warnings.... Freedom of speech is freedom of speech..."

Is this a case of, Physician, heal thyself ... ? Yoby, I wasn't trying to convince anyone of anything. I was giving my reaction to the poem, and explaining why. Isn't that what this forum is all about?

message 21: by Wilhelmina (last edited Aug 12, 2010 11:16PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 856 comments I actually like the poem the way it is. Stylistically, the blunt, abrupt ending seems to suit a poem about a mindless, compassionless organism oblivious to the harm it's causing to the larger body, whether its a human body or the planet. "To us" seems a bit coy for such a clinical analysis.

message 22: by Michael (new)

Michael Canoeist (michaelcanoeist) I don't know if you're a bulldozer, Yoby, or someone who actually does "live and let live" -- but my point, if you like things blunt, is this: that when you try to shut down a point of view you disagree with, you shouldn't also praise freedom of speech. It's contradictory.

message 23: by Michael (last edited Aug 13, 2010 02:31PM) (new)

Michael Canoeist (michaelcanoeist) I was analyzing a poem, Yoby. Maybe you should read my comments again -- including the fact that I liked a lot of things about it. You seem to be bringing a lot of extraneous stuff into this discussion -- and now you're telling me about attitudes of mine I never knew existed. What I know about Margaret Atwood is this -- I read her book Surfacing decades ago, when it first came out, and I didn't find it lived up to the hype. That's all I remember, and I never bothered going back to her. My comments about this poem are text-based; they're about the writing, not some other issues. And they're good comments, too, LOL. This feels to me like it's about something totally different for you. I have no idea where you "stand" -- or on what, other than you must feel it necessary to defend Atwood from anything less than complete satisfaction with her writing.

message 24: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 611 comments When I asked who the speaker in the poem is, I was thinking that maybe it's not necessarily Atwood being didactic. Could the speaker be a cancer patient trying to make some sense of what's happening to her? She begins by trying to be objective, but she can't stay with that. She next personifies cancer as an invading alien interested only in its own survival. Then she realizes that she, too, is interested only in her own survival.

message 25: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1454 comments Scout, I really like your interpretation, it makes great sense to me.

message 26: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 856 comments I like it also.

message 27: by Mary Ellen (last edited Aug 14, 2010 09:01AM) (new)

Mary Ellen | 1440 comments I agree with Scout's interpretation. I think this is an internal monologue, not a "lesson" for the reader. I also think the poem's rhythm works better with that last line included. Otherwise, it kind of dribbles off at the end. (I also agree with Kenneth that, if read as a lecture aimed at the reader by a wiser narrator, it is a bit too didactic.)

I am curious about this phrase: More life, and more abundantly. I know Atwood is not religious, but is she aware of Jesus's saying, "I have come that [people:] may have life, and have it more abundantly."? Of course, the abundance to which Jesus refers is a richer inner life, primarily, and the cancer cell is seeking the material enrichment needed to sustain a physical existence.

message 28: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2125 comments I find it interesting that the cancer in the first stanza is a flower; in the second stanza it is a Martian; and in the third it is "like" money. It, as Mary Ellen says, "seeking the material enrichment needed to sustain a physical existence".

I, too, agree that the speaker is a cancer patient, trying to make sense of what is going on in her body. And Mary Ellen, thank you for pointing at the reference to Jesus's words. There are many churches that have the words "Abundant Life" in their name.

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