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Book Reviews

The Door

by Margaret Atwood

After publishing more than 40 books over a writing career that spans more than four decades, Margaret Atwood must be exhausted. In The Door, her first new collection of poems since 1995’s Morning in the Burned House, she herself hints that it’s all getting to be a bit much.

These poems are filled with references to old age, mortality, fatigue, and the vexations of life as a celebrity. In the persona of an oracle, Atwood tells us, “There’s so much I could tell you/ if I felt like it. Which I do less and less.” In another poem, with the apt title of “Dutiful,” the speaker is torn between her sense of obligation to help and the weariness that comes from a life reluctantly dedicated to political activism.

Unfortunately, most of this book also feels as though it were composed out of duty and habit. Atwood has never been a poet of great technical gifts or verbal panache. These new poems have the same unadorned, sardonic, plainspoken style that has become her trademark, but for the most part they lack the laconic economy that makes her best poetry tick. Out of 50 poems, 38 are more than a page long – not in and of itself a bad thing, but Atwood’s prosy line rarely has the rhythmic energy to sustain poems of that length.

At times, the writing betrays a serious lack of editing, such as this syntactical botch: “the brown meandering river/ he was always in some way after that/ trying in vain to get back to.” And this comes at the end of a poem, where if anything the lines should be tightest. Also, Atwood repeatedly substitutes lazy, heavy-handed rhetoric and too-predictable political stances for imagery and metaphor, bludgeoning readers with banal observations and opinions they probably already hold: “We get too sentimental/ over dead animals./ We turn maudlin./ But only those with fur,/ only those who look like us,/ at least a little.”

There are glimmers of the old Atwood, however. In one poem, the dead “appear,/ smelling like damp hair,/ flickering like faulty toasters.” One taut poem, “Reindeer Moss on Granite,” stands out for its metaphorical take on age and tenacity, and a scattered handful of other poems are more or less successful. But on the whole, The Door adds little that is essential to Atwood’s vast oeuvre.