It is dangerous to read newspapersThis poem is from The Animals in That Country, one of Atwood's earliest collections, originally published by the Canadian branch of Oxford University Press in 1968. My copy, a paperback, is inscribed "For Chuck, with best wishes, Peggy A. 1968." I used to be "Chuck," until I met and married Susan, who informed me that the nickname always made her think of ground beef. I don't know if Atwood is still "Peggy," but that's how she was known when we were in graduate school together, and when she married one of my roommates, Jim Polk. (They divorced.)
While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses
and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.
Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse
and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.
I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself.
It is dangerous to read newspapers.
Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees
another village explodes.
This particular poem may not be one of the best in this collection of spare and spiky poems, some of which are about what it means to be human -- the title poem begins, "In that country the animals / have the faces of people" -- and all of which have a strange loneliness about them. But I chose this one because it brings back a particular time: the painful year 1968, a year of assassinations and protests. It seems so long ago -- even some of the things mentioned in it, newspapers and typewriters, are on their way to becoming as obsolete as the astrolabe. But that sense persists of being detached from the brutality of the world, safely wrapped in the quotidian as we witness horrors filtered through the news media.
The images, of the child digging in the sandbox as pits are being filled with victims of the Holocaust, of walking to school stepping on cracks in the sidewalk ("Step on a crack, break your mother's back") as Cold Warriors test nuclear bombs, of blazing jungles and villages that are only names on "difficult maps," could be supplemented with images from Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Peggy Atwood taught me a lot. (In grad school you learn more from your fellow students than you do in lectures and seminars.) I was a naive boy from Mississippi who thought that the people who ran the government knew what they were doing. She opened my eyes to the nightmare that was Vietnam and the bloody hypocrisy that was so rife in our government, and in her fierce way rousted me out of my laziness and complacency. Anyone who has read her novels know that she has an uncompromising and challenging intelligence. Her poems deserve to be better known.