Tuesday Poem: Margaret Atwood, Red Fox

The red fox crosses the ice
intent on none of my business.
It's winter and slim pickings.

I stand in the bushy cemetery,
pretending to watch birds,
but really watching the fox
who could care less.
She pauses on the sheer glare
of the pond. She knows I'm there,
sniffs me in the wind at her shoulder.
If I had a gun or dog
or a raw heart, she'd smell it.
She didn't get this smart for nothing.

She's a lean vixen: I can see
the ribs, the sly
trickster's eyes, filled with longing
and desperation, the skinny
feet, adept at lies.

Why encourage the notion
of virtuous poverty?

It's only an excuse
for zero charity.
Hunger corrupts, and absolute hunger
corrupts absolutely,
or almost. Of course there are mothers,
squeezing their breasts
dry, pawning their bodies,
shedding teeth for their children,
or that's our fond belief.
But remember - Hansel
and Gretel were dumped in the forest
because their parents were starving.
Sauve qui peut. To survive
we'd all turn thief

and rascal, or so says the fox,
with her coat of an elegant scoundrel,
her white knife of a smile,
who knows just where she's going:

to steal something
that doesn't belong to her -
some chicken, or one more chance,
or other life.

© Margaret Atwood
from 'Morning in the Burned House'
Houghton Mifflin

This poem seems very appropriate just at the moment, and probably Margaret Atwood thought so too as she's just posted it up on her Facebook page. I've always been a bit ambivalent about Margaret Atwood's poems - some I love and some I don't. I've often found her wordy and a bit abstract.  But this collection is anything but. This is Margaret Atwood at her most political, writing with a very sharp point indeed. I have quite a few favourites in Morning in the Burned House.  One is February : - "February, month of despair,/ with a skewered heart in the centre,". The poem is centred around her cat, who behaves just as cats do;  "In the pewter mornings, the cat . . . settles/ on my chest, breathing his breath/ of burped-up meat and musty sofas,/ purring like a washboard."  But the cat becomes a metaphor for something else, just as the red fox does in this poem.

Also in this collection is In the Secular Night, which perfectly describes those early morning moments, what I call the Terrible 3 ams, though Margaret Atwood's seem to be half an hour earlier. "In the secular night you wander around/ alone in your house. It's two-thirty./ Everyone has deserted you", and your whole life revolves around your brain as you wander the silent rooms.

But by a long distance Red Fox is my favourite poem. It's about so many things when you start peeling away the layers. And I love the images, particularly 'her white knife of a smile'.  I can see the fox as she writes.

Morning in the Burned House
Margaret Atwood
Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

The Tuesday Poets are taking a break from posting on the hub site - sheer exhaustion and the workload of our members - but individual Tuesday Poets will still be posting on their own blogs and the links on the hub site will still be there.  Today is the last of our official Hub poems and it's a collective effort edited by NZ poets Mary McCallum and Claire Beynon.  Please click the link to read 'I know now what I didn't know then' by all of us.


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