Reading: February by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) is an acclaimed Canadian novelist who also writes poetry, that I find quite accessible. I plucked ‘February’ from the interwebs:


Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

She definitely wrote this on the couch in her Canadian home, and the cat is so real. I like the metaphors she employs, color of pewter, the black fur sausage with Houdini eyes, isn’t that wonderful? The nonchalant way of introducing death (he’ll think of something) and ‘purring like a washboard’ makes for fresh poetry. After death she throws in some sex for good measure. Another tomcat (uncastrated, why the use of the term ‘capon’?) has pissed to mark his territory. From an efficiency perspective it is not rational to feed offspring in minus thirty. Still, we don’t snip testicles or munch on our young – love does us in (like King Kong).

Then she pushes the cat off her face, giving in to the ‘life principle’, even though that will eventually do us in. We can read between these lines that Atwood is a great admirer of the Greek classics. I enjoyed her Penelopiad, Homer’s tale through the eyes of the women Penelope and her Twelve Maids. This poem brings ‘a little optimism’ but with a splash of cat piss and vinegar of course.

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