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Margaret Atwood's "In the Secular Night"

Updated on September 30, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Margaret Atwood


Reading & attempted reenactment of "In the Secular Night"

Introduction and Text of Poem, "In the Secular Night"

Margaret Atwood's poem, "In the Secular Night," features qualities of the term "loose musing," which is redundant but can also be considered an oxymoron. Poets muse when they simply think in a ruminating fashion, searching the images that occur, retaining some, rejecting others, then making connections. "Loose musing" leaves out the connections, runs past the retaining/rejecting stage—presenting whatever has occurred as if by Divine decree.

Many postmodernist poets' pieces are the result of nothing but this type of musing without cogent thought with connections. They build no bridges for the reader/listener; they seem to expect the reader will adore them for putting words on paper in a poetic column.

While loose-musing can be a useful first step in creating a superb poetic drama, when poets fail to go beyond that first step, it results in silly, unconnected, solipsistic discourse, of which this piece and most Atwoodian pieces are guilty examples.

Margaret Atwood's "In the Secular Night" consists of three free verse paragraphs (versagraphs). The theme of the poem takes a stab at self-examination. The reader will detect that the speaker of this piece lives an unexamined life, but on occasion ventures into loose musing with the result of slipshod bits of poetic drama.

In this poem, the speaker employs the device of addressing a second person who is actually the first person; she is, in effect, talking to herself, addressing herself as "you." Many modernist and postmodernist poets employ this device.

In the Secular Night

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.


First Versagraph: "In the secular night you wander around"

In the first verse paragraph, the speaker sets up her dilemma: "In the secular night you wander around / alone in your house." Because she has designated the night "secular," she can claim to be alone because if the night were spiritual, she would be accompanied by the Divine.

The speaker then claims that she will insist, "everyone has deserted" her: that's her story anshe is sticking to it. The speaker's age is uncertain, but she seems to be remembering everyone leaving her at home to baby-sit when she was sixteen.

Loose musing can result in some fine concepts, but if left to its own looseness, it can leave out too much and the piece can lose credibility, meaning, and comprehension. At this point in Atwood's piece, the reader/listen meets one of those disadvantages. While claiming she was left home to baby-sit, the speaker claims illogically that she is alone. Obviously, she cannot be alone if she is caring for a child.

The speaker describes a drink that she has fashioned with ice cream, grape juice, and a soft drink. She listens to a Glenn Miller recording while quaffing the drink. She then lights a cigarette and blows the smoke up the chimney.

The speaker then cries for a while, "because [she was] not dancing." So then she dances "by herself"; she seems to have forgotten that she had earlier affirmed she was alone in the house.

She has taken the time to look at a mirror to note that her "mouth" was "circled with purple," from the drink, but she does not include the mirror in her narrative. This gap leaves the reader looking around for the mirror while wondering about the time lapse a glimpse into the mirror would create.

Second Versagraph: "Now, forty years later, things have changed"

The speaker jumps ahead forty years and reports, "things have changed." If that bit of information seems a bit obtuse because so obvious, then the change from a vanilla ice cream float to "baby lima beans" will boldly clear up the first impression.

The speaker then asserts, "It's necessary to reserve a secret vice." Her vice is that she sometimes forgets to "eat / at the stated mealtimes." At this point, the reader must remember that this scenario features no ordinary narrative: this speaker is not trying to make the reader laugh; she is simply engaging in loose musing. The speaker then enlightens the reader about how she prepares her baby limas: she "simmer[s] them carefully" and then she strains out all the water and then "add[s] cream and pepper."

To add to the yumminess of the beans, she then "amble[s] up and down the stairs, / scooping them up with [her] fingers right out of the bowl." The scenario of ambling and scooping with fingers represents only one of the demarcations that lay bare the juncture separating this speaker from those who posses the skill to exhibit clarity of thought in a poetic drama.

The speaker then admits to talking to herself but not yet receiving an answer; her loose musing has not yet resulted in insanity, but she expects "that part will come later."

Third Versagraph: "There is so much silence between the words"

The final verse paragraph amalgamates in her loose-muse fashion the terms "silence," "God," "white clothing," "mysticism," "sirens" and yammers, "the century grinds on."

The most loose-mused lines of this verse paragraph are those that allude to and actually use the term, "God": "The sensed absence / of God and the sensed presence / amount to much the same thing, / only in reverse."

The reader, thus, infers that this speaker will receive those answers very soon, but for the piece, too much loose musing has left it a menagerie of unparsed images without any connections to meaning.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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