Skip to main content

Margaret Atwood's "Backdrop addresses cowboy" and "In the Secular Night"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Introduction and Text of "Backdrop addresses cowboy"

The speaker in Margaret Atwood's "Backdrop addresses cowboy" is backdrop, implying that the curtain or stage set on which the play-acting cowboy performs is having a conversation with the cowboy, or at least presenting him with a soliloquy, since the cowboy does not speak or respond to the backdrop/speaker.

(This title is displayed oddly, as if the title of the piece were the first line, although it is not. Commentarians traditionally deliver the works, including titles, exactly as formed by the writer, and that is what I have done here, odd as it may look.)

Backdrop addresses cowboy

Starspangled cowboy
sauntering out of the almost-
silly West, on your face
a porcelain grin,
tugging a papier-mâché cactus
on wheels behind you with a string,

you are innocent as a bathtub
full of bullets.

Your righteous eyes, your laconic
trigger-fingers
people the streets with villains:
as you move, the air in front of you
blossoms with targets

and you leave behind you a heroic
trail of desolation:
beer bottles
slaughtered by the side
of the road, bird-
skulls bleaching in the sunset.

I ought to be watching
from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront
when the shooting starts, hands clasped
in admiration,
but I am elsewhere.

Then what about me

what about the I
confronting you on that border,
you are always trying to cross?

I am the horizon
you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso

I am also what surrounds you:
my brain
scattered with your
tincans, bones, empty shells,
the litter of your invasions.

I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.

Interpretive Recitation of Atwood's "Backdrop addresses cowboy"

Commentary

Margaret Atwood's piece features a surrealistic drama that reduces the cowboy to a straw man, as the speaker vents her rage against a fantasy. This foolishness of this work renders it undeserving of the label, "poem"; thus, I call it a "piece."

First Movement: A Showbiz Cowboy

Starspangled cowboy
sauntering out of the almost-
silly West, on your face
a porcelain grin,
tugging a papier-mâché cactus
on wheels behind you with a string,

you are innocent as a bathtub
full of bullets.

Country-Western singers often dress up in fancy shirts that might render their appearance "starspangled"; thus, it becomes apparent that the speaker is influenced by a showbiz perception and not the reality of practicing, hard-working cowboys who have no need, much less desire, to saunter forth in "starspangled" shirts.

But the agenda of this speaker is not to present reality but to set up a straw man against which she can protest. She attempts to indict this sauntering cowboy for wrongs she imagines, as she implies the cowboy's sauntering shows his hubris which she finds as silly as the "almost- / silly West."

Again, the reader will remember that the stereotype being flaunted here is nothing more than a showbiz prop, and therefore cannot be taken at face value.

Sounding as if she could be describing a little boy dressed up in cowboy outfit and playing as if he were a cowboy, she further describes the cowboy as projecting "a porcelain grin," while he is "tugging a papier-mâché cactus / on wheels behind [him] with a string" —all this culminating in his innocence equating "a bathtub / full of bullets."

It is with this line that the surreality of the piece becomes evident. What is the point of "a bathtub / full of bullets"? As long as the bullets remain in the bathtub, they are worthless, not capable of penetrating any target. But on the other hand, a bathtub full of them would constitute a heck of lot of them.

If the speaker disdains guns as a matter of course, and as much as she disdains the cowboy, who would possess the weapons/bullets, her choice of declaring the porcelain-grinning, starspangled, sauntering cowboy as innocent as a bathtub full of bullets presents a confused image.

Second Movement: Fingers of Few Words

Your righteous eyes, your laconic
trigger-fingers
people the streets with villains:
as you move, the air in front of you
blossoms with targets

and you leave behind you a heroic
trail of desolation:
beer bottles
slaughtered by the side
of the road, bird-
skulls bleaching in the sunset.

Ironically for this speaker, the cowboy has righteous eyes—righteous indicating that he has all the power of correctness on his side.

But then he has "laconic / trigger fingers"—his trigger fingers use few words (does this cowboy speak only sign language?); those fingers are concise as they "people the streets with villains." His trigger fingers create a population of villains in the streets.

Apparently, readers are urged to infer that the mind of the cowboy working through his trigger fingers imagines a street full of villains—a form of pretzel-twisted logic. Perhaps his trigger fingers have not created those villains after all: "as [he] move[s], the air in front of [him] / blossoms with targets."

The moving air suddenly becomes a flower and blossoms with those villains. And this occurs while the cowboy "leave[s] behind [him] a heroic trail of desolation: / beer bottles / slaughtered by the side / of the road, bird- / skulls bleaching in the sunset."

"Heroic" is obviously meant to be ironic, perhaps even oxymoronic, as it modifies "trail of destruction," akin to saying the happy trail of tears. The desolation is beer bottles and dead birds.

While desolation might be too strong a word, the technical problem with this quartet of lines presents a more serious problem: "beer bottles / slaughtered by the side / of the road, bird- / skulls bleaching in the sunset."

At first blush, it seems that the speaker is claiming that the beer bottles were slaughtered, but common sense would dictate that, in fact, the slaughtered ones are the birds whose skulls are bleaching in the sun. The configuration of the lines causes the confusion—perhaps a semi-colon after bottles would help.

Third Movement: Confused Speaker

I ought to be watching
from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront
when the shooting starts, hands clasped
in admiration,
but I am elsewhere.

In this movement, the backdrop refers to herself, saying she should be "watching / from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront / when the shooting starts." The speaker seems to have forgotten who/what she is.

She very likely is part of the cliff or cardboard storefront because she is the BACKDROP. But her confusion continues as she gives herself hands which should be "clasped / in admiration." She proclaims that she should somehow admire the cowboy and his shooting.

Yet, it remains unclear why, except that the claim again stands like a straw man in an argument full of rhetorical fallacies. She then asserts that even though she should be clasping her backdrop hands in admiration, she is elsewhere—indicating that her mind, her heart, her allegiance belong to someone or something other than the cowboy and his shenanigans.

Fourth Movement: Vacuous Question

Then what about me

what about the I
confronting you on that border,
you are always trying to cross?

The speaker then asks the cowboy a vacuous question: "what about me . . . ?" She then claims that she is the "I " who is "confronting [the cowboy] on that border, / [he is] always trying to cross?" Would that be the Mexican border, the Canadian border, or some imaginary, surrealistic, postmodernist border that only the speaker knows for sure?

Fifth Movement: A Manifesto of "I am"

I am the horizon
you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso

I am also what surrounds you:
my brain
scattered with your
tincans, bones, empty shells,
the litter of your invasions.

I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.

Finally, the manifesto, the I am, I am, I am: but all these I ams refer to one thing, the backdrop which is the horizon to which the cowboy rides. However, she then shifts back to personhood as the second I am surrounding the cowboy has a brain, and that brain is "scattered with [his] / tincans, bones, empty shells, / the litter of [his] invasion."

The final empty, limp last line: "I am the space you desecrate / as you pass through." The backdrop complains that the cowboy litters its space as he travels through it: a farcical, plastic cowboy despoils a backdrop that weaves in and out of humanhood. This backdrop could possibly benefit by studying some real cowboy poetry.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Introduction and Text of "In the Secular Night"

Like the late poetaster, Robert Bly, Margaret Atwood is one the most overhyped scribblers ever to blight po-biz. As critic Matthew Flamm opined on another poetaster’s doggerel pieces, "sometimes their obscurity seems no more than hip poetic posturing." The same is true for Atwood’s efforts.

Margaret Atwood’s literary fame received a huge boost after her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was made into a movie and featured on Hulu. The sheer idiocy of the theme of that work reveals what is wrong with Atwood and her ilk: writers who are out of touch with reality on most levels. Atwood has come under fire for attempting to salvage certain terms related to biological sex. But her confused, tangled argument has done little to assuage either her opponents or her supporters.

Handmaid’s Tale Author A "TERF"? Feminism Isn't Woke Enough! Margaret Atwood Backlash

The entertainment value of such works as The Handmaid’s Tale becomes overshadowed by the inanity of its implications for society. The work clearly attempts to make a statement about social mores, yet as it does so, it takes leaps of fantasy that appeal only to the sycophantic, moronic fringe who will believe anything that furthers what they already believe.

While more versed in bad prose writing, Atwood has nevertheless delved often—even if only shallowly—into the creation of poetry. If thinking requires understanding, then many postmodernist poets are guilty of thinking without thought; such is exemplified by this Atwoodian loose-mused atrocity, "In the Secular Night."

This piece features qualities of the term "loose musing," which is redundant but can also be considered an oxymoron. Poets muse when they simply think in a ruminating fashion, searching the images that occur, retaining some, rejecting others, then making connections.

"Loose musing" leaves out the connections, runs past the retaining/rejecting stage—presenting whatever has occurred as if by a self-inflated Divine decree. Many postmodernist poets' pieces are the result of nothing but this type of musing without cogent thought with connections.

They build no bridges for the reader/listener; they seem to expect the reader will adore them for putting words on paper in a poetic column. While loose-musing can be a useful first step in creating a superb poetic drama, when poets fail to go beyond that first step, it results in silly, unconnected, solipsistic discourse, of which this piece and most Atwoodian pieces are guilty examples.

Margaret Atwood's " In the Secular Night" consists of three free verse paragraphs (versagraphs). The theme of the poem takes a stab at self-examination. The reader will detect that the speaker of this piece lives an unexamined life, but on occasion ventures into loose musing with the result of slipshod bits of poetic drama.

In this poem, the speaker employs the device of addressing a second person who is actually the first person; she is, in effect, talking to herself, addressing herself as "you." Many modernist and postmodernist poets employ this device.

In the Secular Night

In the secular night you wander around
alone in your house. It’s two-thirty.
Everyone has deserted you,
or this is your story;
you remember it from being sixteen,
when the others were out somewhere, having a good time,
or so you suspected,
and you had to baby-sit.
You took a large scoop of vanilla ice-cream
and filled up the glass with grapejuice
and ginger ale, and put on Glenn Miller
with his big-band sound,
and lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up the chimney,
and cried for a while because you were not dancing,
and then danced, by yourself, your mouth circled with purple.

Now, forty years later, things have changed,
and it’s baby lima beans.
It’s necessary to reserve a secret vice.
This is what comes from forgetting to eat
at the stated mealtimes. You simmer them carefully,
drain, add cream and pepper,
and amble up and down the stairs,
scooping them up with your fingers right out of the bowl,
talking to yourself out loud.
You’d be surprised if you got an answer,
but that part will come later.

There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
You say, I have too much white clothing.
You start to hum.
Several hundred years ago
this could have been mysticism
or heresy. It isn’t now.
Outside there are sirens.
Someone’s been run over.
The century grinds on.

Interpretive reading of "In the Secular Night"

Commentary

This loose-mused atrocity demonstrates the flaccid unthinking brain that has become satisfied in perpetrating fraud upon its poetically unschooled listeners, and they will clap like seals, pretending to love being deceived and pandered to.

First Versagraph: Setting up the Dilemma

In the secular night you wander around
alone in your house. It’s two-thirty.
Everyone has deserted you,
or this is your story;
you remember it from being sixteen,
when the others were out somewhere, having a good time,
or so you suspected,
and you had to baby-sit.
You took a large scoop of vanilla ice-cream
and filled up the glass with grapejuice
and ginger ale, and put on Glenn Miller
with his big-band sound,
and lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up the chimney,
and cried for a while because you were not dancing,
and then danced, by yourself, your mouth circled with purple.

In the first verse paragraph, the speaker sets up her dilemma: As a secularist without spiritual hopes and goals, a person may flail around in her home alone. Because she has designated the night "secular," she can claim to be alone because if the night were spiritual, she would be accompanied by the presence of some form of the Divine.

The speaker then claims that she will insist, "everyone has deserted" her: that's her story and she is sticking to it. The speaker's age is uncertain, but she seems to be remembering everyone leaving her at home to baby-sit when she was sixteen.

Loose musing can result in some fine concepts, but if left to its own looseness, it can leave out too much and the pieces then lose credibility, meaning, and comprehension. At this point in Atwood's piece, the reader/listen meets one of those disadvantages.

While claiming she was left home to baby-sit, the speaker claims illogically that she is alone. Obviously, she cannot be alone if she is caring for a child. The speaker describes a drink that she has fashioned with ice cream, grape juice, and a soft drink.

She listens to a Glenn Miller recording while quaffing the drink. She then lights a cigarette and blows the smoke up the chimney.

The speaker then cries for a while, "because [she was] not dancing." So then she dances "by herself"; she seems to have forgotten that she had earlier affirmed she was alone in the house.

She has taken the time to look at a mirror to note that her "mouth" was "circled with purple," from the drink, but she does not include the mirror in her narrative. This gap leaves the reader looking around for the mirror while wondering about the time lapse a glimpse into the mirror would create.

Second Versagraph: Jumping Ahead

Now, forty years later, things have changed,
and it’s baby lima beans.
It’s necessary to reserve a secret vice.
This is what comes from forgetting to eat
at the stated mealtimes. You simmer them carefully,
drain, add cream and pepper,
and amble up and down the stairs,
scooping them up with your fingers right out of the bowl,
talking to yourself out loud.
You’d be surprised if you got an answer,
but that part will come later.

The speaker jumps ahead forty years and reports, "things have changed." If that bit of information seems a bit obtuse because so obvious, then the change from a vanilla ice cream float to "baby lima beans" will boldly clear up the first impression.

The speaker then asserts, "It's necessary to reserve a secret vice." Her vice is that she sometimes forgets to "eat / at the stated mealtimes."

At this point, the reader must remember that this scenario features no ordinary narrative: this speaker is not trying to make the reader laugh; she is simply engaging in loose musing.

The speaker then enlightens the reader about how she prepares her baby limas: she "simmer[s] them carefully" and then she strains out all the water and then "add[s] cream and pepper."

To add to the yumminess of the beans, she then traipses up a stairway and down as she eats the beans with her fingers.

The scene of ambling up and down stairs and scooping beans with fingers represents only one of the demarcations that lay bare the juncture separating this speaker from those who possess the skill to exhibit clarity of thought in a poetic drama.

The speaker then admits to talking to herself but not yet receiving an answer; her loose musing has not yet resulted in insanity, but she expects "that part will come later."

Third Versagraph: Loose-Mused Amalgamates

There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
You say, I have too much white clothing.
You start to hum.
Several hundred years ago
this could have been mysticism
or heresy. It isn’t now.
Outside there are sirens.
Someone’s been run over.
The century grinds on.

The final verse paragraph amalgamates in her loose-muse fashion the terms "silence," "God," "white clothing," "mysticism," and "sirens" as it yammers, "the century grinds on."

Juxtaposing her nod to spirituality to an unhappy accident, she shuts out any thought that she may retain any hope of positivity as she assumes that some person has been "run over" by a car because she can hear "sirens" outside.

The most loose-mused lines of this verse paragraph are those that allude to and actually use the term, "God": she can sense both the presence and absence of "God" and that situation amount to the "same thing / only in reverse." This vacuous claim exposes the doggerel to even less worth, and the poet to even more guilty pretension.

The reader, thus, infers that this speaker will receive those answers very soon, but for the piece, too much loose musing has left it a menagerie of unparsed images without any connections to meaning.

Much of Atwood’s poetry is pocked with the same absurdity that is rampant in this piece, likely resulting from an inflamed ego. As the critic, Matthew Flamm, once opined about another poetaster’s pieces of doggerel, "sometimes their obscurity seems no more than hip poetic posturing."

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the tone and theme of the poem "Backdrop Addresses Cowboy"?

Answer: The tone is unearned rage. The theme is confused criticism.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes