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Monday, February 13, 2006

Reader's Diary #33- Margaret Atwood: Selected Poems II (up to "The Bus to Alliston, Ontario")


In my last posting about this book, I said I wasn't impressed. That's changed.

Since then I read "The Bus To Alliston, Ontario". Simply put, this is now added to my short list of favourite poems. The others being "l(a" by e. e. cummings, "Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost and "This is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams.

My wife went to highschool in Alliston and I remembered her mentioning this particular poem to me. Though I mistakenly remembered that she didn't like it. So after reading it through twice I thought, "Geez, this is great. What am I missing?" So I reread it a third time, trying to find a problem, some reason that she didn't like it. But upon rereading it, I found even more that I DID like. So I read it again and again. And wow! This is a great poem. I don't even care if the rest of the poems in this collection are crap, it was worth the read just to find this one. I couldn't even read the next poem afterward because I just wanted to mull over "The Bus To Alliston, Ontario" for a while.

So why is it so great? Primarily I think it's because of the imagery. Lines like "Outside, the moon is fossil/ white..." just hammered home the themes of mortality versus immortality while creating such a visual that for a moment I was traveling to Alliston. Secondly, those themes. I love poems that contemplate the higher meanings of life while still anchoring themselves in the mundane. Atwood creates the illusion of a simple winter bus ride while focusing the reader's attention on what it means to be mortal and immortal at the same time. We live short lives but our memories and presence live on. It comes close to my own view of the afterlife so the poem probably has more appeal to me than a lot of people. I also like the cyclical nature of the poem (again tying in with the themes). For instance, in the opening stanza Atwood describes snow along the roadside "...sends dunes/ onto the pavement..." and the concluding paragraph returns to the desert imagery "...the snow/ is an unbroken spacelit/ desert...". Just beautiful.

I was a little curious with the choice of Alliston. With no offense meant to the people of Alliston, I don't know of anything particularly special about the place. I thought maybe that was part of the point- again going back to anchoring high meaning in the mundane. However, every other word in this poem seemed to be misleadingly simple and so I had the suspicion that "Alliston" held some other importance as well. So I broke out the ol' internet and did some snooping. Actually, the searching wasn't that hard. Atwood, it seemed, owned a farm in Alliston when this poem was written (maybe she still does, I don't know). So the bus "to Alliston" was a busride home. Not that this couldn't be concluded from the poem itself, but somehow it makes the poem a little more personal and heartfelt in my opinion.

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