helen of troy does countertop dancing

Helen of Troy (1966) by the American artist Ren Wicks (1911-1998)

The world is full of women
who'd tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they'd say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I've a choice
of how, and I'll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it's all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything's for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can't. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape's been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there's only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it's the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can't hear them.
And I can't, because I'm after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don't let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I'll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That's what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They'd like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look--my feet don't hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I'm rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I'm not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you'll burn.

~ by Margaret Atwood


goatman said...

Her writing gives me chills sometimes. "crisp as heated metal searing the nostrils" I love her similes and await them. After pages of drudging description one or two will pop up making it all worthwhile.
Thanks for reminding me.

soubriquet said...

Oh my.
Why haven't I read more of Margaret Atwood's poems?

That's a great one for the 'Prey? or Predator?' debate.

red dirt girl said...

How about:

Wall me up alive in my own body or nothing is more opaque than absolute transparency

I always associate Atwood with you, goatman, and The Blind Assasin.

I'm not sure why I've avoided her poetry all these years, because researching her, I find she HAS been writing poetry since the '60's. I stumbled across one the other day; then Soub found another; then I found this one ..... and so it goes. I LOVE her 'voice' - the tension of duality.

I think you can make a great argument for both 'Prey' and 'Predator'. She certainly and quite frankly acknowledges both sides of the coin here in this poem.

The end of it, however, is PURE female.
Burn baby, burn ....


red dirt girl said...

ps. I'm publicly claiming my Goddess status, right here, right now!

J Cosmo Newbery said...

Goodness. Perhaps she needs a stress management course. Tai chi, perhaps.

goatman said...

Rose petals must fall ö ö ö

red dirt girl said...

Cosmo - LOL .... I like poems written with passion / conviction. And as a woman, I understand 'where she's coming from' - or maybe, better to say, I understand the part of me that responds to the viewpoint expressed in this poem.


red dirt girl said...

goatman, why am I thinking 'thorns will be revealed'???


bulletholes said...

Wow, this chick's tough. I'm gonna use that last erse in my Fully Clothed Women album.

red dirt girl said...


I'd say 'enter with caution' when reading an Atwood poem.