Poetry Picks: ‘Up’, Margaret Atwood

I came across this poem entirely by chance, actually. Sometime a few years ago, I used my enormous Norton Anthology of Poetry to press some flower petals, and when I came back to check them some weeks or months later, I had a quick read of the poems surrounding them – one of which was Margaret Atwood’s ‘Up’. To this day I’m still not entirely sure why this poem made such an impression; there’s something so simplistic and quietly haunting about it, it takes me by surprise every time.

The poem explores themes of depression, lethargy and paralysing fear about the past and future. Like most of my favourite poems, it lacks consistent rhythm and uses rhyme sparingly – I’m not a fan of sing-song rhythm or repetitive rhyming, so this gets a big thumbs up from me. This use of unstructured free verse, paired with the use of the second-person ‘you’, give this poem a completely natural, conversational feel.

In fact, I think it is the use of the second-person tense that I would argue gives this poem a strangely reassuring, almost motivational tone. Where first person may have given a sense of wallowing self pity, the use of ‘you’ gives a sense of friendly understanding.

However, poetry is incredibly subjective, so where I find something reassuring in this poem, someone else might see something different. Read the poem below and let me know your thoughts!

‘Up’, Margaret Atwood

You wake up filled with dread.
There seems no reason for it.
Morning light sifts through the window,
there is birdsong,
you can’t get out of bed.

It’s something about the crumpled sheets
hanging over the edge like jungle
foliage, the terry slippers gaping
their dark pink mouths for your feet,
the unseen breakfast— some of it
in the refrigerator you do not dare
to open— you will not dare to eat.

What prevents you? The future. The future tense,
immense as outer space.
You could get lost there.
No. Nothing so simple. The past, its density
and drowned events pressing you down,
like sea water, like gelatin
filling your lungs instead of air.

Forget all that and let’s get up.
Try moving your arm.
Try moving your head.
Pretend the house in on fire
and you must run or burn.
No, that one’s useless.
It’s never worked before.

Where is it coming from, this echo,
this huge No that surrounds you,
silent as the folds of the yellow
curtains, mute as the cheerful

Mexican bowl with its cargo
of mummified flowers?
(You chose the colours of the sun,
not the dried neutrals of shadow.
God knows you’ve tried.)

Now here’s a good one:
you’re lying on your deathbed.
You have one hour to live.
Who is it, exactly, you have needed
all these years to forgive?

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