In the burned house I am eating breakfast.
You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast,
yet here I am.
The spoon which was melted scrapes against
the bowl which was melted also.
No one else is around.
Where have they gone to, brother and sister,
mother and father? Off along the shore,
perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers,
their dishes piled beside the sink,
which is beside the woodstove
with its grate and sooty kettle,
every detail clear,
tin cup and rippled mirror.
The day is bright and songless,
the lake is blue, the forest watchful.
In the east a bank of cloud
rises up silently like dark bread.
I can see the swirls in the oilcloth,
I can see the flaws in the glass,
those flares where the sun hits them.
I can’t see my own arms and legs
or know if this is a trap or blessing,
finding myself back here, where everything
in this house has long been over,
kettle and mirror, spoon and bowl,
including my own body,
including the body I had then,
including the body I have now
as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy,
bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards
(I can almost see)
in my burning clothes, the thin green shorts
and grubby yellow T-shirt
holding my cindery, non-existent,
radiant flesh. Incandescent.
This poem fascinates me with its treatment of subject-matter that Atwood often visits in her poetry: grief and loss of innocence.
I feel that this piece is exploring the dizzying, almost out-of-body sensation that grief can inject us with. For me, the grief in this poem can and should be interpreted according to the reader. There seems to be room in this poem for grief for the self (that is to say, grief for lost innocence – the child that one once was) or grief for a loved one (particularly a for parent, I think). Of course, these two sorts of grief are in a sense inseparable, and can certainly intertwine.
The opening of this poem is immediately intriguing: “In the burned house I am eating breakfast./ You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast”. I find these lines extremely clever, extremely telling. From the very outset of the piece, the poet is admitting to us that she is a liar, or that she is in denial of her reality. There is something so appealingly confiding, almost intimate in that “You understand”. Atwood seems to be saying: ‘you are like me; you are in denial, too’. The image of the burned house seems to me to be symbolic of the ruins of a conventional family life, childhood, innocence and stability. The burned house is such a violent image, and it leads me to imagine a brutal loss of innocence via some kind of trauma, or else the sudden loss of a parent or close family member.
The words, “yet here I am” are so incredibly sad. For me, this line evokes the way in which human nature clings to its own innocence, and to love, with all its might. We cannot help ourselves. Even though the house has burned down, the speaker in the poem attempts to retrieve some remnants of normality and stability; here she is, “eating [her non-existent] breakfast”. Breakfast is a very cleverly chosen meal here – it smacks of all that one connects with a healthy, disciplined, ‘correct’ lifestyle, as one’s sensible mother and grandmother would encourage. Even after the fire – even her home and all the furniture of stability has been destroyed – the speaker seeks normality; safety is seemingly being sought in the memory of what was once good.
As the poem continues, the speaker wonders where her family has gone – her mother and father, her brother and sister. She speculates hopefully about this, surely inspired by her former life in happy innocence: “Off along the shore,/ perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers”. Although it is clearly not the case as she sits among the ruins of the burned house, the speaker imagines that her family has simply gone for a walk along the beach, and that they will be back soon. The image of the clothes on the hangers, and the dishes piled up by the sink to be washed up, is highly evocative of a house after its occupant has died without warning; nothing in the house was prepared for the sudden departure, and everything is waiting for its owner to return, as thought they had just stepped out for a short walk.
The poet describes the day as “bright and songless”. For me, these words really help to depict the sense of stark grief that haunts the poem – the desolation of absence under the spotlight of a clear morning. The line, “In the east a bank of cloud/ rises up silently like dark bread” again shows the speaker’s need for the language of her former life to describe her desolate reality; in the east, where the the sun should be rising, heralding a new day, there is a bank of cloud rising “like dark bread”. The image of bread rising is clearly inspired by traditional domestic life and possibly the kind of activity that a child might share with her mother in an idyllic childhood – baking bread.
“I can’t see my own arms and legs/ or know if this is a trap or blessing” writes Atwood. I feel that here the idea of a physical loss of innocence is strongly evoked, since the speaker refers to her own body. She is telling us that she has now become estranged or detached from her body, and that she doesn’t understand if this situation is a “trap or blessing”. There is clear confusion here.
The poet can see nothing of herself: “including my own body,/ including the body I had then,/ including the body I have now/ as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy”. The all-purging fire has apparently consumed her entire body. Did she die in the fire, too? Is she a ghost? She seems unsure. Here the speaker acknowledges how radical the change that her loss has had on her – it is a physical loss: she speaks about the body she had before the loss, and the body she had after the loss.
In the final two stanzas Atwood continues with her evocation of physical loss, and the ambiguity about whether or not she has survived the fire continues to linger. We are delivered the image of her “bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards/ (I can almost see)/ in my burning clothes”. Here we are clearly being delivered the sense that the speaker remains innocent before the loss she has suffered (she has “bare child’s feet” that stand innocently upon the scorched floorboards). Does she remain innocent because she has been burned – destroyed – by the fire? Again, we may ask, is she a ghost? I love the final image of that “grubby yellow T-shirt/ holding my cindery, non-existent,/ radiant flesh. Incandescent.” What an outstanding ending to the poem. I detect some sense of triumph on the part of the speaker (who had appeared before as the ‘victim’). She is “non-existent” – she has been consumed by the fire that has burned the house down, but she is “Incandescent” – rising above the destruction, as it were. She is in fact radiant in her preserved innocence that has apparently been distilled by the murderous flames that burned the house down.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh