Sitting at noon over the carrot salad
my sister and I compare dreams.
She says, father was there
in some kind of very strange nightgown
covered with bristles, like a hair shirt.
He was blind, he was stumbling around
bumping into things, and I couldn’t stop crying.
I say, Mine was close.
He was still alive, and all of it
was a mistake, but it was our fault.
He couldn’t talk, but it was clear
he wanted everything back, the shoes, the binoculars
we’d given away or thrown out.
He was wearing stripes, like a prisoner.
We were trying to be cheerful,
but I wasn’t happy to see him:
now we would have to do the whole thing over again.
Who sends us these messages,
oblique and muffled?
What good can they do?
In the daylight we know
what’s gone is gone,
but at night it’s different.
Nothing gets finished,
not dying, not mourning;
the dead repeat themselves, like clumsy drunks
lurching sideways through the doors
we open to them in sleep;
these slurred guests, never entirely welcome,
even those we have loved the most,
especially those we have loved the most,
returning from where we shoved them
away too quickly:
from the ground, from the water,
they clutch at us, they clutch at us,
we won’t let go.
Establishes that although loved ones may leave the mortal coil, once you start dreaming, you leave reality and enter a realm that, in this case, isn’t exactly magical fantasy adventures: it’s where they come back to haunt you.
- Creates an image of the father and of departed loved ones in general: note that the what the father is like is not actually tackled. The father is wholly represented by his signs.
Synesthesia of the pain of saudade, the detachment of unreality and the confusion of both
tone: surreal, sad
Why is this subject and these moods being tackled from the surreal lens of dreams? - One obvious answer is that since the Father is dead, this is the only way that he can actually appear.
This mood is a slow build that begins all the way from the very beginning of the poem, although it is not actually saudade until the third stanza.
Where does this deep saudade come from? It begins with the way the father is presented in the sister’s dream. He is blind, stumbling around bumping into things. The narrator cannot stop crying. Immediately you get the notion that something is deeply wrong. - the father is “in some kind of very strange nightgown / covered with bristles, like a hair shirt”: considering that he’s dead, he is literally a fuzzy memory.
The narrator’s dream sets the primary mood up. - “He was still alive”
There also exists a subtle undertone of anger. - “..but it was our fault”
Using the narrator’s dream, Atwood also distills the confusion and wrongness of the sister’s dream into an indirect characterization of the sister as child-like, perhaps younger. This can be inferred by the way the narrator’s dream is far more nuanced and mature: it deals with emotions and circumstances that children would not generally experience or mull over like selling/throwing things away and faking emotions. How does this contribute to the mood? It paints a much stronger image of longing and sadness: of an elder sister coping with the fallout both emotionally and in reality of her father’s death, while her younger sister is still confused and in the middle of processing it, yet still devastated enough to cry.
What does oblique mean? The definition is slanted: not parallel or perpendicular. My only guess is that such slanted messages come from a slanted source: the father, who is not quite dead, yet not quite alive; not living upright amongst the living, yet not resting supine with the dead either; no longer alive, but still affecting those that are. These messages are muffled, naturally, by the father’s “very strange”, fuzzy state.
The latent wrongness and unreality in the first half of the poem is brought out to shine in the second half, which is one long refrain. The refrain makes Atwood’s poetic skill apparent to anyone: it makes extensive use of imagery and symbolism to show the world in which those that are lost but not wholly reside. It is an alien world of dread where there is no time and no defined place: merely the dead, which, due to their nature, are seemingly animate in their hold over those that survive them (they clutch at us), yet static in that they always manifest with the same emotions. (we won’t let go).