Procedures for Underground By Margaret Atwood

Procedures for Underground was Margaret Atwood’s fourth book of poetry; it remainsprocedures one of the relatively few early works of hers that has yet to be re-issued in its complete form.  Most readers—myself included—encountered poems from this collection in Atwood’s Selected Poems 1, which featured nineteen or so of Underground’s forty-four poems.

The title poem details a journey to the “underland”, where “the earth has a green sun/and the rivers flow backwards.”  Atwood avoids using the expected Greek underworld figures and themes here, inventing instead her own original mythology where the voyager encounters former friends “changed and dangerous” with messages that must be conveyed to those above ground.  This gift of border-crossing is ambivalent, as the poem indicates at its close: “Few will seek your help with love, none without fear.”  The majority of the poems in this collection relate similar crossings.  Atwood’s poetry has a strong narrative and visual component, drawing (sometimes projecting) the reader immediately into the fictional worlds she creates.  Several poems stage the idea of transcendent voyeurism, lending a cinematic quality to the writing that would translate well into short, stop-motion animated films.  Figures familiar from Atwood’s previous books are all here: drowned women, phantom siblings, shared dream scapes, estranged couples and distant family members, and the book as a whole boasts a haunting, somber beauty throughout.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

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