I, who had been erased by fire

Excerpt from The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood

Photo by Jay Patel on Unsplash

These are three poems from the poetry book The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air,
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently-
shaped ears

though I tried to adapt

(the girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeered at me for my burned bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude:
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. the forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder:
the branches quivered.

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible

Departure from the bush

I, who had been erased
by fire, was crept in
upon by green
lucid a season)

In time the animals
arrived to inhabit me,

first one
by one, stealthily
(their habitual traces
burnt); then
having marked new boundaries
returning, more
confident, year
by year, two
by two

But restless: I was not ready
altogether to be moved into

They could tell I was
too heavy: I might

I was frightened
by their eyes (green or
amber)glowing out from inside me

I was not completed; at night
I could not see without lanterns.

He wrote, We are leaving. I said
I have no clothes
left I can wear

The snow came. the sleigh was a relief;
its track lengthened behind,
pushing me towards the city

and rounding the first hill, I was
unlived in: they had gone.

there was something they almost taught me
I came away not having learned.

Thoughts from underground

When I first reached this country
I hated it
and I hated it more each year:

in summer the light a
violent blur, the heat
thick as a swamp,
the green things fiercely
shoving themselves upwards, the
eyelids bitten by insects

In winter our teeth were brittle
with cold. We fed on squirrels.
At night the house cracked.
In the mornings, we thawed
the bad bread over the stove.

Then we were made successful
and I felt I ought to love
this country.

I said I loved it
and my mind saw double.

I began to forget myself
in the middle
of sentences. Events
were split apart

I fought. I constructed
desperate paragraphs of praise, everyone
ought to love it because

and set them up at intervals

due to natural resources, native industry, superior
we will all be rich and powerful

flat as highway billboards

who can doubt it, look how
fast Belleville is growing

(though it is still no place for an english gentleman)

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Journals of Susanna Moodie – Summary

Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), regarded by many as her most fully realized volume of poetry, is one of the great Canadian and feminist epics. In 1980, Margaret Atwood’s longtime friend, the distinguished Canadian artist Charles Pachter, illustrated, designed, and published a handmade boxed portfolio edition of 120 copies of the poem with silkscreen prints, created as an act of homage to the poet. Atwood herself has said of Pachter’s work, His is a sophisticated art which draws upon many techniques and evokes many echoes. The poem and the prints inspire one another. This is the first facsimile edition of the original, as well as the first one-volume American edition of the poem, with an introduction by Charles Pachter and a foreword by David Staines.

Copyright © 1970 by Margaret Atwood.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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