“All” Is a Lie


I recently encountered the above plaque at one of the many schools I visited while searching for an elementary school for my son. It’s a verse from a poem that ranks among Margaret Atwood’s most famous works: “Spelling.”

I will not offer up another “bloggy” essay of why the poem matters. Clearly it does. Nor will I get into a feminist reading of the piece. I mean, is there really another reading?

What I will say is that I just gave birth to a girl, whom I plan to speak with in earnest about the false hope of “having it all.” For me, there is no such thing because “all” has morphed from work, play, family into successful and fulfilling career, multi-purpose children, passionate marriage, rows of friends, earnest hobbies, effortless fitness, excessive health, public charity, extended families, PTA love, ironed shirts, current event knowledge, repetitive travel, leisure reading, social media charm, monogrammed stationary thank you cards, spontaneous vocabulary, clean teeth, non-existent white hair and inner peace.

I think my generation, raised on the shoulder-pad libertine boat, was told we could have it “all” because our mothers hoped it was indeed true. It is not, but it’s ok.  “All” is too much work.  Instead, I will tell my daughter to pick the few things she really wants and consider them her all.



My daughter plays on the floor
with plastic letters,
red, blue & hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.

I wonder how many women
denied themselves daughters,
closed themselves in rooms,
drew the curtains
so they could mainline words.

A child is not a poem,
a poem is not a child.
there is no either/or.

I return to the story
of the woman caught in the war
& in labour, her thighs tied
together by the enemy
so she could not give birth.

Ancestress: the burning witch,
her mouth covered by leather
to strangle words.

A word after a word
after a word is power.

At the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
when the bones know
they are hollow & the word
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.

This is a metaphor.

How do you learn to spell?
Blood, sky & the sun,
your own name first,
your first naming, your first name,
your first word.


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