2014-04-10 13:32:57

Your Daily Poem: Margaret Atwood

Ed. note: For National Poetry Month, we’re highlighting one feminist poem each day in April. See the whole series here.


Your poem today is “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” from the great Margaret Atwood.


Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing



The world is full of women

who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself

if they had the chance. Quit dancing.

Get some self-respect

and a day job.

Right. And minimum wage,

and varicose veins, just standing

in one place for eight hours

behind a glass counter

bundled up to the neck, instead of

naked as a meat sandwich.

Selling gloves, or something.

Instead of what I do sell.

You have to have talent

to peddle a thing so nebulous

and without material form.

Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way

you cut it, but I’ve a choice

of how, and I’ll take the money.


I do give value.

Like preachers, I sell vision,

like perfume ads, desire

or its facsimile. Like jokes

or war, it’s all in the timing.

I sell men back their worse suspicions:

that everything’s for sale,

and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see

a chain-saw murder just before it happens,

when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple

are still connected.

Such hatred leaps in them,

my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary

hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads

and upturned eyes, imploring

but ready to snap at my ankles,

I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge

to step on ants. I keep the beat,

and dance for them because

they can’t. The music smells like foxes,

crisp as heated metal

searing the nostrils

or humid as August, hazy and languorous

as a looted city the day after,

when all the rape’s been done

already, and the killing,

and the survivors wander around

looking for garbage

to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.

Speaking of which, it’s the smiling

tires me out the most.

This, and the pretence

that I can’t hear them.

And I can’t, because I’m after all

a foreigner to them.

The speech here is all warty gutturals,

obvious as a slab of ham,

but I come from the province of the gods

where meanings are lilting and oblique.

I don’t let on to everyone,

but lean close, and I’ll whisper:

My mother was raped by a holy swan.

You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.

That’s what we tell all the husbands.

There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.


Not that anyone here

but you would understand.

The rest of them would like to watch me

and feel nothing. Reduce me to components

as in a clock factory or abattoir.

Crush out the mystery.

Wall me up alive

in my own body.

They’d like to see through me,

but nothing is more opaque

than absolute transparency.

Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!

Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,

I hover six inches in the air

in my blazing swan-egg of light.

You think I’m not a goddess?

Try me.

This is a torch song.

Touch me and you’ll burn.


From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood.


sm-bio Syreeta McFadden is a co-curator of Poets In Unexpected Places.


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