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Living on the Edges: Constructions of Post-Colonial Subjectivity in Atwood’s Early Poetry

Chapter

Abstract

In an article called ‘Permanently Canadian’ Al Purdy tempers impatience with irony as he returns to the difficult assumptions involved in debates about nationalism and individuality: ‘Certainty of nationality and personality is an illusion, since there is no permanence in anything, anything at all. And yet we cling to this shifting and uncertain self, this rag of ageing bone, this handful of dust to which we’ve given a loved name.’1 Purdy’s protest at the coercive unification implicit in the notion of a self-conscious, self-identifying subject connects with one of the central themes of post-structuralism, and in such contexts Margaret Atwood’s poetry gathers to itself the defining attributes of a Canadian paradigm. Her elaborate constructions of a post-colonial subjectivity encode a running parallel between the conditioning of Canada as a nation-state and the positioning of women within it, and then by extension the positioning of women within any governing patriarchy. It has already been argued that the circumference of Atwood’s imagination is often contained by Canada’s national and literary boundaries: ‘it is almost as if she consciously sets herself down, right in the middle of the Canadian literary landscape, and tries to orient herself by filtering Canadian experience through archetypes of her poetic sensibility.’2 Geographical locations and the figuring of selfhood form a continuing motif of uncertainty and anxiety, as words come into conflict with a seemingly recalcitrant environment. But Atwood as often interrogates any notion of a subject, expressing a meaning, through which the world is presented to that subject.

Keywords

Canadian Experience Page Reference Siamese Twin Constitutional Culture Violent Duality 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Quoted in Linda Hutcheon, As Canadian as … Possible … under the Circumstances! (Toronto, 1990) p. 22.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sandra Djwa, ‘The Where of Here: Margaret Atwood and a Canadian Tradition’, in A. E. Davidson and C. N. Davidson (eds), The Art of Margaret Atwood (Toronto, 1981) pp. 15–34.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Margaret Atwood, The Circle Game (Toronto, 1966) p. 11. Subsequent quotations will be marked G and page references given parenthetically.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis (London, 1980) p. 375.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Sherrill Grace, Violent Dualities (Montreal, 1980) p. 16.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems (Toronto, 1976) pp. 29–30. Subsequent quotations will be marked SP and page references given parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Margaret Atwood, The Animals in that Country (Toronto, 1968). Subsequent quotations will be marked AC and page references given parenthetically.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, VII, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1988) p. 256.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Northrop Frye, ‘Conclusion’, in Carl F. Klink (ed.), Literary History of Canada, 2nd edn, vol. 2 (Toronto, 1976) p. 342.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Harmondsworth, 1975) p. 59.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    W. L. Morton, The Canadian Identity, 2nd edn (Toronto, 1972) pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire. Book 1: Les Écrits techniques de Freud (Paris, 1975) p. 46.Google Scholar
  13. 24.
    A. C. Cairns, ‘Citizens (Outsiders) and Governments (Insiders) in Constitution-making: the Case of Meech Lake’, Canadian Public Policy, IX, special issue (September 1988) pp. 124–8.Google Scholar
  14. 26.
    Margaret Atwood, Two-headed Poems (Toronto, 1978) pp. 60–1. Subsequent quotations will be marked ‘THP’ and page references given parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1994

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