As with many of Atwood’s poems, Spelling begins with an innocent act—a child playing with the plastic letters of the alphabet. This image is later transmuted to the woman oppressed who must be made to realize that she is the most important person in her life. This poem appears in “True Stories”, where the form and content of writing makes the very title a metaphor. The narrator focuses on her motherhood as she gazes at the childish game of “my daughter”. Yet, before the verse ends, a different dimension is placed on the child.
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.
This striking pun introducing magic envelops the images that follow. The second verse brings in questions of feminism of women denying themselves the choice to become mothers so that they “could mainline worlds”. Atwood’s choice of the word “mainline” implies that choosing to be a writer is like talking a drug. There is deliberate structural repetition and inversion in the next two lines –
A child is not a poem,
A poem is not a child.
There are not alternatives that can be chosen to replace each other. Atwood plays with very simple language and actually posits the “either/or” in the verse. Her transitory word “however” remains hanging alone in a line before she can “return to the story” in the next verse.
Now the images change and there are women
Caught in the war
& in labour, her thighs tied
together by the enemy.
It is no more a woman’s choice not to give birth but something that has been imposed on her. The lines recall the cruelty of chastity belts in the Middle Ages to ensure an unsullied bloodline; they emphasize the pain of a woman deprived of her natural desires, even rights. The images that follow are even more horrifying for “Ancestress: the burning witch” recalls those women who were burnt at the stake for speaking out the truth, or daring to assume that they could do so. Atwood gives all woman the common fore-mothers, and figures like Joan of Arc or the Woman in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” now belong most intimately to a feminine nation. Society is the unseen force, always present “to strangle words”, to rid itself of the voices it dislikes. It must be remembered that there are still towns in North America where with-hunting was once the vogue. These towns today use their dark history to attract tourists.
Atwood displays the power of language almost as simplistically as a child would say it:
A word after a word
After a word is power
The ability to speak out is often a skill that is suppressed, freedom of speech denied. The final verses of the poem concentrate on the horrible image when “language falls away From the hot bones,” imaging the women who were burnt at the stake. Supernatural actions tantamount to labour and childbirth enter the poem and the rock splits such that “darkness/flows out of it like blood”. Finally, language itself is personified –
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.
There is speed and rush in the sentence structure as wounds inflicted by society are compelled to speak out in protest.
Atwood states the obvious – “This is a metaphor.” Yet the metaphor lies in inter-twining women with words, and in the pathos of women, especially when denied the right to express themselves. The woman giving birth and the woman writing for self-expression are juxtaposed and merged. It must be noted that even her style, Atwood becomes even more terse and abbreviated; “and” is replaced by its symbol “&” as the poem moves towards closure. When she comes to the question “How do you learn to spell?” it is interrogative of the way one learns to create a magic spell that can dispel oppression, or try to bewitch the exploiters into submission. The ultimate image is of baptism, of performing magic that can accord identity of selfhood to an individual.
Thus, “your own name first, your first naming, your first name, your first word,” comes full cycle to the new-born child, from whence a woman must take her lead.
The poem, Spelling, which can be read in full here, is a brilliant rendering of images spun together and executed through play with language that intermittently conceals and reveals larger problems, the burning issues for feminist discourse. Reading the poetry of Atwood is to explore sexual identity as an important aspect of feminist ideals and cultural politics. She shifts her stance to where man’s sexual domination is seen as a form of imperialism; the physical landscape and the native people are replaced by the woman’s body that is violated, her voice that is silenced.
Life & Works of Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian litterateur. She is a leading Canadian poet, short story writer, novelist and critic. Born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario to Carl Edmund Atwood and Margaret Killam Atwood, she is second of their three children, son Harold and sister Ruth. The family moved from Ottawa to Toronto during the years 1946 to 61, where her father, an entomologist, was a member of the faculty at the University of Toronto. Margaret attended Leaside High School in Toronto between 1952 and 1957. She began to write when she was sixteen. Some of her well-known works include: This is a Photograph of Me, The Animals in That Country, Procedures for Underground, The Landlady, Spelling and a lot more.