True Stories: Poems,
by Margaret Atwood
Simon & Schuster, 1981
What surprised me most about True Stories: Poems, was that the poems were actually relatively short and spare  a style I wouldn't have expected from Margaret Atwood, whose novels are lush and prosy and long.

According to the back cover of the collection, "True Stories intensifies and extends many of the themes in Margaret Atwood's critically acclaimed novel Bodily Harm: the necessity of bearing witness to the crimes of repressive political societies and the redemptive power of friendship."

Atwood's voice is intimate and compelling in these poems. Being "true stories," they come across sometimes as confession, sometimes as reporting occurrences about which we need to know. These lines from "Postcard" are a good example of Atwood's confessional voice:

I'm thinking about you. What else can I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.

Although many of the "true stories" related by Atwood in these poems are self-referential, there are many that serve to show us the grim ugly faces of people who do things we don't like to think about, sad circumstances, stark reality. One of the best examples of this is the long, multi-segmented "Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written." It's difficult to pull just a few lines from this poem, but I will try to show you a couple of the ones that really struck me  the "goose bump" lines:

There is no poem you can write
about it, the sandpits
where so many were buried
& unearthed, the unendurable
pain still traced on their skins.

This did not happen last year
or forty years ago but last week.
This has been happening,
this happens.

and these lines:

The facts of this world seen clearly
are seen through tears;
why tell me then
there is something wrong with my eyes?

To see clearly and without flinching,
without turning away,
this is agony, the eyes taped open
two inches from the sun.

Atwood's poems often speak to their readers in imperatives, instructing the reader to wake up, take notice. As in these lines from "A Women's Issue," which is an extraordinarily political poem:

You'll notice that what they have in common
is between the legs. Is this
why wars are fought?
Enemy territory, no man's
land, to be entered furtively,
fenced, owned but never surely,
scene of these desperate forays
at midnight

Atwood commands her readers to pay attention to their lives and to their surroundings, and this is what I like most about her poetry. To me, a poem must not only describe, but must make life relevant to us. Through her poetry, Atwood helps us see our connections to the rest of the world -- the number one job of the writer. With her attention to the political and social causes, as well as the everyday life stories of real people, Atwood uses her poetry to awaken and unite us all.

Also by Atwood: The Year of the Flood; Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (lectures); Alias Grace; Moral Disorder and Other Stories; The Tent; The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus; Waltzing Again: New & Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood; Curious Pursuits (essays); Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose - 1983-2005; Second Words: Selected Critical Prose; Oryx and Crake; Good Bones and Simple Murders; The Blind Assassin; The Edible Woman; Surfacing; Lady Oracle; Life Before Man; Bodily Harm; The Handmaid's Tale; Cat's Eye; The Robber Bride; Dancing Girls; Bluebeard's Egg: Stories; Wilderness Tips; Bottle; Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature; Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature; Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing; and Good Bones and Simple Murders.

Poetry by Atwood:  The Door; The Circle Game; The Animals in That Country; The Journals of Susanna Moodie; Procedures for Underground; Power Politics; You Are Happy; Selected Poems: 1965-1975; Selected Poems II: 1976-1986; Two-Headed Poems; True Stories; Poems: 1986; Interlunar; and Morning in the Burned House.

Children's Stories by Atwood: Up in the Tree (baby-preschool); Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (ages 4-8); Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (ages 4-8); and Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (ages 5-8).

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Read an interview with Margaret Atwood on the Random House web site.