Margaret Atwood is better known as a novelist (chiefly for The Handmaid’s Tale) but she’s no slouch when it comes to poetry.
In the poem, “The Small Cabin,” she does one of those “Speak, Memory” poems, and the word “small” is oh, so important when it comes to memory. Anyone who has returned to their childhood house, neighborhood, or school knows that. What loomed large in childhood is now laughably small (if you dare revisit the place, that is).
Watch how Atwood expertly takes this memory trick and parlays it into something larger at the end. Have I mentioned before how important “turns” and “endings” are in poetry? Oh, yeah. A few times, maybe.
Important. And devilish to pull off with aplomb. So when we see it, we admire it. And try to emulate it.
The Small Cabin
The house we built gradually
from the ground up when we were young
(three rooms, the walls
raw trees) burned down
last year they said
I didn’t see it, and so
the house is still there in me
among branches as always I stand
inside it looking out
at the rain moving across the lake
but when I go back
to the empty place in the forest
the house will blaze and crumple
suddenly in my mind
collapsing like a cardboard carton
thrown on a bonfire, summers
crackling, my earlier
selves outlined in flame.
Left in my head will be
the blackened earth: the truth.
Where did the house go?
Where do the words go
when we have said them?
4 thoughts on “Why Is the Past So Small? (And Other Memory Tricks)”
Wow! I prefer Atwood’s poetry since her novels scare me. That doesn’t keep me from reading them, though.
I’ve only read Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. Liked them both, though. And the poems of hers I’ve read, too!
The Handmaid’s Tale rattled me so badly that I couldn’t bear to watch the film version. I only read it a few years ago and felt it was all the more scary because it seemed a possible reality 30 years after publication. I gave it 5 stars for its power and 5 stars to Cat’s Eye, 4 to Hag-Seed and to her short stories, Stone Mattress. Other readers may wonder why I’m blathering on. Ken and I are Goodreads friends and often agree on the best books.
Your well-read on your Atwood, I see! I have some catching up to do!