In the Secular Night by Margaret Atwood
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.
© 1995 Margaret Atwood. “In the Secular Night” first appeared in Atwood’s collection Morning in the Burned House, which was published in 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. It is available to buy wherever books are sold.
First and foremost, let me state here unequivocally that it is a travesty Margaret Atwood has yet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. That’s first. Next, I’d like to say that very few writers can scare me like Atwood can. She imbues every work of hers, be it novel, poem, or otherwise, with an otherworldly terror which is simply too close to reality for comfort. There is also this exactitude, this precision, bound up in elegance and wit, which seems impossible to replicate. At the very least, I have never seen it outside of her work.
Though her oeuvre is substantial, history will remember her primarily for her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, it tells the story of Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, which has succeeded the United States’ government via violent overthrow and which treats women with viable uteruses like cattle, meant to be silent, acquiescent, and obedient in discharging their only purpose in life, which is to bare children for their Commanders. They are deprived of all agency and ruled over with an iron fist.
One could say Gilead is patriarchy on steroids, and they’d be right. Gilead looks too much like America in 2021 for my liking. With a conservative-majority SCOTUS waiting like a salivating bloodhound to overturn Roe v. Wade and states like Texas rolling back reproductive rights and severely limiting abortion access, we are just a stone’s throw away from the world Atwood envisioned. Let’s hope there are enough of us left in the world who stand for a woman’s right to choose.
Wow, I started off with a poem and ended up talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. You can certainly see my ADHD at work here, but what the heck? This is my blog and I’ll go off on whatever tangent I darn well please. Mazel tov, my friends.
To learn about how you can help support reproductive justice advocacy work, go to https://www.plannedparenthood.org.
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