Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood

9th April 2013

Margaret Atwood is a favorite author, but this is my first read of her poetry. My favorite poem from Morning in the Burned House:


You forced me to give you poisonous gifts.
I can put this no other way.
Everything I gave was to get rid of you
as one gives to a beggar: There. Go away.
The first time, the first sentence even
was in answer to your silent clamour
and not for love, and therefore not
a gift, but to get you out of my hair
or whatever part of me you had slid into
by stealth, by creeping up the stairs,

so that whenever I turned, watering
the narcissus, brushing my teeth,
there you were, just barely, in the corner
of my eye. Peripheral. A floater. No one
ever told you greed and hunger
are not the same.

How did all of this start?
With Pity, that flimsy angel,
with her wet pink eyes and slippery wings
of mucous membrane.
She causes so much trouble.

But nothing I ever gave was good for you;
it was like white bread to goldfish.
They cram and cram, and it kills them,
and they drift in the pool, belly-up,
making stunned faces
and playing on our guilt
as if their own toxic gluttony
was not their fault.

There you are still, outside the window,
still with your hands out, still
pallid and fishy-eyed, still acting
stupidly innocent and starved.

Well, take this then. Have some more body.
Drink and eat.
You’ll just make yourself sick. Sicker.
You won’t be cured.

More lines and stanzas of note:

left lipstick imprints the shape of grateful, rubbery
sighs on the cigarettes of men
I hardly knew and didn’t want to.

crisp as heated metal

The speech here is all warty gutterals,
obvious as a slab of ham

Wall me up alive
in my own body.

the lost syllable for “I” that did not mean separate

Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win.


capon – castrated roosterc
sauve qui peut – every man for himself
arpeggios – a musical technique where notes in a chord are played or sung in sequence, one after the other, rather than ringing out simultaneously.
abbatoir – slaughterhouse
carapace – a protective, decorative, or disguising shell
sic transit – thus passes
plangent – Loud, reverberating, and often melancholy
sibilants – Of, characterized by, or producing a hissing sound like that of (s) or (sh)
portage – carrying water craft or cargo over land, either around an obstacle in a river, or between two bodies of water

9 thoughts on “Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood

  1. sugarleg

    per your FB question:
    full disclosure, I did NOT read this poem. I too am very particular about poetry and my inner cranky, mocking, cynic comes out, because so much poetry is just SO dreadful and yet people keep writing it and reading it as if it were making them deeper intellectuals. it always seems me that people use poetry as emotional crutches, whilst on their journeys of emotional discovery and recovery. blech, with the journeys already!!! stop with the Mary Oliver for a while. okay, I am done now.

  2. Meredith

    Atwood’s best known for her fiction, but her poetry goes back to the sixties and was pretty groundbreaking in its time. Take a look through The Circle Game and the Journals of Susanna Moodie; those are my favourites.

  3. Jim

    The one I remember from this book is “A Sad Child.” Her poems almost always have great opening lines and give you something you didn’t expect at the end. To the comment, “so much poetry is SO dreadful,” I agree–but not with the assumption about the motivations of its writers and readers. I think people go to poetry for what they can’t get anywhere else. I don’t anyone who reads poems to be a “deeper intellectual.” I know lots of people who read poems to feel more alive. Most poetry falls short of that, it’s true, but when you find the right pom at the right time, there really is nothing like it in the world. Thanks to Mighty Girl for the reminder.

  4. erinn

    i am a huge Margaret Atwood fan, both fiction and poetry. i have been lucky enough to attend a few of her readings, and she really is a delight.

    You fit into me
    like a hook into an eye

    a fish hook
    an open eye

    i can’t wait for Maddaddam to be released this summer!

  5. Megan

    …how have I never known Margaret Atwood was a poet? Well, yesterday’s loss, today’s gain. But, damn!

  6. Frances

    The fourth section of that book touched me deeply when my dad passed away. I was 18 and read those poems over and over. Hands down, my favorite poet!

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