Patremoir Tweet Summary #5: Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood

Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart 1995)

While Morning In the Burned House is not a pure patremoir, it contains enough powerful father poems to justify a week of patremoir tweets. The more I read and reread Atwood’s poetry, the more I think her accomplishments as a major poet are undervalued. So, by way of preface to this past week’s tweets, here is my anthology introduction to “Flowers”:

There is an illusion of plain precision in this poem. In some of her other father poems Atwood is a druid priestess decorating green holly wreaths with red berries of pain, a Cordelia with a love “like salt” for her father’s dying Lear, or a curatorial, forensic archaeologist scraping a slide clear of “little / flowers of crystallizing earth” to recover an ancestral Otzi-like echo of her father in his youth. Here, Atwood garlands the painful banality of death in an institution with the flowers of her verse; snipping them off with clinical care, while at the same time turning her narratorial self into a flower girl who, with her epithamalium, eases the turtle father out of the deathbed shell, helping him to transform the institution into a ship and the nurses into “plump muscular angels” to shift him on his way. Her wordflowers are placed in the prosaic pickle jar of her poem in an attempt to preserve the memory of “the same father I knew before,” the naturalist father who first took her into the Canadian wilderness and taught her how to look “hard and up close at the small details.” In the end, however, “Flowers” acknowledges the pain of helplessness: not flowers, sorrow, anger, nor even memory can save the father or the self from inevitable death. Part of Atwood’s power lies in her willingness to recognize the limitations of language.

Morning in The Burned House

My father is standing there / with his back turned to us / in his winter parka, the hood up. “Two Dreams”
22 Jan

Once, my father / and I paddled seven miles / along a lake near here / at night, with the trees like a pelt of dark / hackles “The Ottawa River By Night”
21 Jan

But somewhere in there, at the far end of the tunnel / of pain and forgetting he’s trapped in / is the same father I knew before “Flowers”
20 Jan

In the seven days before his death / I dreamed my father twice. “Two Dreams”
19 Jan

Some cleaning, scraping away those little / flowers of crystallizing earth, and then / a wand of light, and here’s my father “Man In a Glacier”
18 Jan

It was my father taught my mother / how to dance. “Dancing”
17 Jan

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