The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 30 :: PENINA ROTH on MARGARET ATWOOD

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I was attending a yeshiva high school in suburban Maryland when I first encountered Margaret Atwood’s striking poem “You Fit Into Me.” Our 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Gretsch, was determined to instill free thinking in our class of socially conservative prepsters, and her syllabus, with units devoted to Macbeth, Our Town, and de Tocqueville, reflected this.

All the reading material was fascinating, but the words that resonated most for me were captured in four deceptively simple lines:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

As Mrs. Gretsch unpacked the imagery for us, discussing how Atwood re-envisioned two common household objects to subvert a traditional domestic narrative (the placidity of sewing supplanted by the suggestion of violent attack), a new world opened up for me. Thematically, the poem echoed my determination to buck middle class convention in favor of a bohemian lifestyle, and aesthetically, it sparked my interest in word play and work that upends readers’ expectations.

Those sixteen words were seared into my impressionable adolescent mind. Now (many years later), as a reading series curator, I’m drawn to transgressive authors, and you could say my entire literary sensibility was forged in a quick lesson on a Canadian author.

Poetry packs a powerful punch.

The City Planners

Cruising these residential Sunday
streets in dry August sunlight:
what offends us is
the sanities:
the houses in pedantic rows, the planted
sanitary trees, assert
levelness of surface like a rebuke
to the dent in our car door.
No shouting here, or
shatter of glass; nothing more abrupt
than the rational whine of a power mower
cutting a straight swath in the discouraged grass.

But though the driveways neatly
sidestep hysteria
by being even, the roofs all display
the same slant of avoidance to the hot sky,
certain things:
the smell of spilled oil a faint
sickness lingering in the garages,
a splash of paint on brick surprising as a bruise,
a plastic hose poised in a vicious
coil; even the too-fixed stare of the wide windows

give momentary access to
the landscape behind or under
the future cracks in the plaster

when the houses, capsized, will slide
obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers
that right now nobody notices.

That is where the City Planners
with the insane faces of political conspirators
are scattered over unsurveyed
territories, concealed from each other,
each in his own private blizzard;

guessing directions, they sketch
transitory lines rigid as wooden borders
on a wall in the white vanishing air

tracing the panic of suburb
order in a bland madness of snows

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction, but is best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Her newest novel, MaddAddam (2013)is the final volume in a three-book series that began with the Man-Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short fiction) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a collection of non-fiction essays appeared in 2011. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was adapted for the screen in 2012. Ms. Atwood’s work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian.

 Penina Roth is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Post, The L Magazine and other publications. She is the Founder and Curator of the Franklin Park Reading Series, voted by Time Out NY as one of the Best Reading Series of 2012. The series has been recommended and covered by numerous publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and many others. The series alums include Teju Cole, Lev Grossman, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Darin Strauss, Emma Straub, Amy Sohn and many, many others. Find Penina on Twitter.

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