When Atwood published Surfacing early in her career as a novelist, her protagonist tried to open a door to the past to create a mirage of her father after his mysterious disappearance. In The Door, her first collection in over a decade, Atwood both opens and closes doors to the past. The father of “Butterfly” is also something of a mirage. She imagines him a child walking to school through the forest where, “he noticed/ everything: mushroom and scat, wildbloom,/ snail, and iris, clubmoss, fern and cone.” It is this image of the father walking into the forest that the speaker uses to help understand his absence.
Atwood has always pushed the boundaries of fiction, and, while her poetry looks very traditional on the page, it is anything but conventional in content. The images range from the mundane to the fantastic, as in “Ice Palace,” a poem that conjures up fairy tales and carnage—of “sugared air” and “the fearful beast who runs the show/ and longs for kisses.” Behind the “demi-/ paradise where all desires/ are named and thus created,/ lurks the “Backstage,” where “it’s always carnage./ Red petals on the floor./ You hope they’re petals. Don’t unlock/ the one forbidden door.” That door, as we read in the final poem, “The Door,” the one that “swings open” into darkness and then “swings closed so quickly/ you don’t notice,” is frightening yet tempting: “It’s dark in there./ …You confide yourself to the darkness./ You step in./ The door swings closed.” The reader is left to the darkness and the unknown future, just as at the beginning of the book the unknown is in the past, in memories, in “the deep-red clot/ of the still-alive past, whole on the plate.”
The poet comes in for scrutiny as well. He/she is the one in “The Poet Has Come Back...” who has come back “to being a poet/ after decades of being virtuous.” When the poet returns, it is “time to unlock the cellar door,/ time to remind ourselves/ that the god of poets has two hands:/ the dextrous, the sinister.” Atwood’s poetry encompasses both, the dextrous and the sinister. Her poetry skillfully creates the impression of smooth surfaces, uses evocative language and controlled stanza, all of which move gracefully to the conclusion, with rhymes in unlikely places, sometimes in the middle of lines, sometimes not readily obvious.
On the other hand, the sinister is always there, beneath the surface, erupting like “the lilies building to outburst.” It is in that moment that the poem is no longer about how “Sor Juana Works in the Garden,” nor is it, as the first line imagines, “Time for gardening again; for poetry; for arms/ up to the elbows in leftover/ deluge, hands in the dirt, groping around/ among the rootlets, bulbs….” The gardener poet has got more than she bargained for: “the earth splits open,/ the dead rise, purblind and stumbling.” Then suddenly the true nature of the poetry, its capacity to create chaos in the soul, is revealed: “the maple/ trees above you shed their deafening keys/ to heaven, your exploding/ syllables litter the lawn.” Maybe the poet opens the doors that lead to chaos and destruction.
Both graphic and lyric, the poetry in The Door cajoles, threatens and even tricks the reader, but it always does so with force and unexpected honesty. The poet creates the dutiful woman, “weeding the garden of others,” the girl running through the forest who is told by her lover to kill herself, the old woman warning the girl, “Go back, my dear.” Whatever the old woman’s advice, none of Atwood’s characters can retreat unless they accept, “the cellar/ where the worst is,/ where the others are,/ where you can see/ what you’d look like dead.” The door that is a skein throughout the volume challenges the reader and the characters in the poems to decide what they really want.
For all the darkness in Atwood’s poetic world, there are moments when the poet captures the essence of a moment: a woman hears her lover singing from the next room. The listener soon realizes: “He wasn’t singing for you, or about you. He had some other source of joy,/ nothing to do with you at all.” That awareness can be devastating and lonely, but it also makes the woman happy and “free.”
Whatever Atwood’s skills as a novelist, she is also the consummate poet who combines myth, memory, experience and pain in a series of poems that speak to the condition of those searching for answers to life’s ultimate questions.