They are hostile nations

1

In view of the fading animals

the proliferation of sewers and fears   

the sea clogging, the air

nearing extinction

 

we should be kind, we should

take warning, we should forgive each other

 

Instead we are opposite, we   

touch as though attacking,

 

the gifts we bring

even in good faith maybe   

warp in our hands to

implements, to manoeuvres

 

2

Put down the target of me

you guard inside your binoculars,   

in turn I will surrender

 

this aerial photograph   

(your vulnerable

sections marked in red)   

I have found so useful

 

See, we are alone in

the dormant field, the snow

that cannot be eaten or captured

 

3

Here there are no armies   

here there is no money

 

It is cold and getting colder

 

We need each others’

breathing, warmth, surviving   

is the only war

we can afford, stay

 

walking with me, there is almost   

time / if we can only   

make it as far as

 

the (possibly) last summer

Margaret Atwood, “They are hostile nations” from Power Politics. Copyright © 1971, 1996 Margaret Atwood. Reprinted by permission of House of Anansi Press.

Source: Power Politics (House of Anansi Press, 1996).

Dive in: 
  1. How does the poet illustrate a sense of urgency in the poem? How does she describe the world?
  2. What does the speaker suggest we do in order to survive?
  3. How does the poet use the three separate sections of the poem to shift her focus of observation?
  4. Do you think this poem is essentially optimistic or pessimistic about the future of human life on this planet? Where do you feel a sense of hope in the poem?
  5. Which are your favourite lines and why?
  6. If you were going to recite this poem, how would you use your voice to reflect the different tones in the poem? Where would you pause, slow down, or speed up?
  7. In this poem, the poet argues for an approach to survival that is cooperative rather than competitive. Think about what anxieties you have about the future and how you would like to see people behave differently. Write a poem in three parts. In the first section, describe the state of modern life as you see it, using at least three concrete physical examples. In the second part, speak directly to a person who you think does not agree with you and find a way to offer connection. In the third and final section, pull these first two sections together — choose whether to end on a hopeful note or with a warning.

 

HELPFUL LINKS

  1. Margaret Atwood has written many novels that imagine where we might be headed, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, the Maddadam Trilogy, and The Heart Goes Last. Watch the author speak about the role of speculative fiction here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOWYdX50qQc
  2. Watch Margaret Atwood discuss extinction with Charlie Rose: http://www.thirteen.org/programs/charlie-rose-the-week/margaret-atwood-on-extinction/
  3. Watch the documentary on Margaret Atwood called Once in August here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/margaret_atwood_once_in_august
  4. Read a long interview with Margaret Atwood from the Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2262/the-art-of-fiction-no-121-...
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