The Handmaid, and the Hurricane’s, Tale

I didn’t pack a book for our flight out of Hurricane Irma’s grasp. What was the point? It wasn’t until the next day, before boarding a flight further away from the storm, that I ventured into a bookstore. There it was: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’d first heard about it via late night TV, one of the actresses from its Hulu version on display. Something about it must be current, I thought, and I needed that — a book to explain the world.

We left Miami on the only flight we could find three days before the storm hit. Sitting on the tarmac, waiting for the extended line of planes to flee, I listened to the row behind discuss lack of insurance. Before, at the airport bar, conversation dropped when images of Irma took the screens. I belonged to a group of people on the run, to an exodus.

I cannot decipher events when they are immediate. It is later, through reading and writing and mulling in the shower, that I comprehend. I knew I wasn’t dealing well with Irma, but it wasn’t until I finished reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” just 36 hours after purchasing it, that I understood why.

What Irma represented for me was not so much fear, destruction, loss, homelessness, but lack of control, lack of choice and authority over the small actions that become a routine. Until further notice, and not by will, my routine was taken.

Meanwhile, Atwood’s book is also about the taking of a way of life. Told by one of many “handmaids,” sex slaves forced to fornicate with powerful men in order to produce offspring, the novel presents an over-the-top, near future in which an infertile society abides by literal observance of the Old Testament.

Somehow, “The Handmaid’s Tale” manages to sustain the delicate momentum of a storm. When devastation hits, it will no doubt be heart braking.  The desire to witness this devastation drives the work forward with the speed of a mystery novel. Despite its scant dialogue, let alone action, I was skipping pages in search of where the book would lead me.

Then, its open ending takes you nowhere.  The book resists the reader’s, and the narrator’s, compulsion to know: there is no resolution, no single truth. Not even the brutal state agency, “The Eye,” can see all that goes on.  Such lack of certainty generated a deep void in my gut, the same kind I felt each time Irma’s track was updated.

But, “The Handmaid’s Tale” represents a more manageable loss of control, a void in book form. And when things are packaged into book form they can be read, understood, addressed. The Eye of the book became the eye of the storm, revealing our weakness to control, to own, to construct, to landscape, to adorn. Of course, control is an illusion. New trees break.

Buy water; be prepared.

 

 

 

 

 

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“All” Is a Lie

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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.

 

Spelling

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

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.

 

Upside down crucifix

Marie Howe The Good Thief National Poetry Series Margaret Atwood

 

An image I loved from The Split by Marie Howe. Published in her book The Good Thief.

Part of The National Poetry Series. This one selected by Margaret Atwood.

Read on American Airlines flight 915, July 2013