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Margaret Atwood visited The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) today, as part of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. She sounded much the same as she did at MIT in 2004, but she looked more grandmotherly, though not elderly. Her humor was very much in bloom. The subject of the “conversation” between her and the Chair of the Department of English, Professor Parker, was her recent poem “The Door” which comes from her collection of poems also titled The Door. This collection has been well-received, though not highly acclaimed.
I am going to respect the author’s wishes, that you might actually buy her book with the poem in it, so I will not paste the poem here. However, I will look at a few lines and discuss. The poem, as with much of Atwood’s work, is about time. I have discussed on this blog the power of paradox, especially as it pertains to time. Atwood admitted to being cognizant of this, remarking that this poem about time is simple — simple in structure, few if any dependent clauses, not unlike a circle. And just like a circle, with its properties mostly well-defined, tremendous mystery still abounds. We cannot grasp all the nuance and consequence of a circle, much less time, that constant companion we seem so well-acquainted with.
Her poem “The Door” generally describes our relationship with time. In each phase of our life, from youth to adolescence to adulthood to maturity and old age, we see the door opening and closing before us. At first, we are fearful of what’s inside. Later, we simply don’t notice it. Afterward, we become mildly curious about it, then very curious, and finally, we confide in it. It is a good poem, and you should go to a Barnes & Noble to flip open her book and read it. Even think about buying it, for there are enough good poems within to warrant it.
She began the conversation saying that novels come to her as scenes, poems as lines. Rhythmic lines, where meaning is not embedded in the content alone, but in the structure. She said that poetry often does begin with experience, but it is condensed human emotional experience, a matter of evocation versus mere self-expression, which would be like just shouting in the woods. Rather, evocation calls feeling out of the audience. Many bits of the personal information markers are shed, as the experience becomes condensed.
As for doors, they can sometimes be doors to the past, but they are always doors to the future. They represent people’s concept of time. Every culture has ways of marking time with recurring events, most based on the cycle of the sun and/or moon, and there are “power points” where another world seems closer, existing on hinges. Heaven has gates, just as Hell, yes? ( Yes, and Gore Vidal is not allowed in. ) Toward the end of the poem, and the end of the subject’s life, we suppose:
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.
The god of hinges is Hermes: always young, wings on sandals, no spouse, messenger of the gods, conductor of souls to the underground, invented articulation…. You want him on your side. And have you ever heard of “Hermetically sealed?” ( Yes, and while we’re at it, Norman Mailer isn’t allowed in either. ) As to keeping the faith, Atwood suggests we cast our minds to those wanting eternal life, but who do not ask for eternal youth; there is always a catch with eternal youth, a cost, as with vampires. Also, in the end, darkness seems to have new meaning. It is not scary anymore, for we confide in it. Think, Atwood says, of how awful it would be if the sun was out all the time?
One final remark on the poem: the door is only closed to the outside observer. We do not know if it is death. We do not know what is inside that door, which the subject caught glimpses of all her life. Beware false assumptions.
Someone asked Atwood: when did your fascination with unpackaging old bits of bizarre history begin? After some rumination, Atwood replied that it must come from the back of comic books, which said to “send away for the decoder ring.” In the end, she says, it is all about secrets. She added, before this, that she loves to read diaries and recommends The Assassin’s Cloak, selections from the world’s greatest diarists. The Bookling discovers, “A diary is an assassin’s cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen.” – Willian Soutar, 1934
Speaking of secrets, you didn’t think I would leave you hanging without linking to her poem, “Siren Song,” did you? As a bonus, you get to hear an actual reading of it from the author herself.