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Margaret Atwood's "Backdrop addresses cowboy"

Updated on October 6, 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.

Portrait of Margaret Atwood


Introduction and Text of Piece, "Backdrop addresses cowboy"

The speaker in Margaret Atwood's "Backdrop addresses cowboy" is backdrop, implying that the curtain or stage set on which the play-acting cowboy performs is having a conversation with the cowboy, or at least presenting him with a soliloquy, since the cowboy does not speak or respond to the backdrop/speaker.

Backdrop addresses cowboy

Starspangled cowboy
sauntering out of the almost-
silly West, on your face
a porcelain grin,
tugging a papier-mâché cactus
on wheels behind you with a string,

you are innocent as a bathtub
full of bullets.

Your righteous eyes, your laconic
people the streets with villains:
as you move, the air in front of you
blossoms with targets

and you leave behind you a heroic
trail of desolation:
beer bottles
slaughtered by the side
of the road, bird-
skulls bleaching in the sunset.

I ought to be watching
from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront
when the shooting starts, hands clasped
in admiration,
but I am elsewhere.

Then what about me

what about the I
confronting you on that border,
you are always trying to cross?

I am the horizon
you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso

I am also what surrounds you:
my brain
scattered with your
tincans, bones, empty shells,
the litter of your invasions.

I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.

Interpretive Recitation of Atwood's "Backdrop addresses cowboy"


First Movement: "Starspangled cowboy"

Country-Western singers often dress up in fancy shirts that might render their appearance starspangled; thus, it becomes apparent that the speaker is influenced by a showbiz perception and not the reality of practicing, hard-working cowboys who have no need, much less desire, to saunter forth in starspangled shirts.

But the agenda of this speaker is not to present reality but to set up a straw man against which she can protest. She attempts to indict this sauntering cowboy for wrongs she imagines, as she implies the cowboy's sauntering shows his hubris which she finds as silly as the "almost- / silly West."

Again, the reader will remember that the stereotype being flaunted here is nothing more than a showbiz prop, and therefore cannot be taken at face value. Sounding as if she could be describing a little boy dressed up in cowboy outfit and playing as if he were a cowboy, she further describes the cowboy as projecting "a porcelain grin," while he is "tugging a papier-mâché cactus / on wheels behind [him] with a string" —all this culminating in his innocence equating "a bathtub / full of bullets."

It is with this line that the surreality of the piece becomes evident. What is the point of "a bathtub / full of bullets"? As long as the bullets remain in the bathtub, they are worthless, not capable of penetrating any target.

But on the other hand, a bathtub full of them would constitute a heck of lot of them. If the speaker disdains guns as a matter of course, and as much as she disdains the cowboy, who would possess the weapons/bullets, her choice of declaring the porcelain-grinning, starspangled, sauntering cowboy as innocent as a bathtub full of bullets presents a confused image.

Second Movement: "Your righteous eyes, your laconic"

Ironically for this speaker, the cowboy has righteous eyes—righteous indicating that he has all the power of correctness on his side. But then he has "laconic / trigger fingers"—his trigger fingers use few words (does this cowboy speak only sign language?); those fingers are concise as they "people the streets with villains." His trigger fingers create a population of villains in the streets.

Apparently, readers are urged to infer that the mind of the cowboy working through his trigger fingers imagines a street full of villains—a form of pretzel-twisted logic. Perhaps his trigger fingers have not created those villains after all: "as [he] move[s], the air in front of [him] / blossoms with targets."

The moving air suddenly becomes a flower and blossoms with those villains. And this occurs while the cowboy "leave[s] behind [him] a heroic trail of desolation: / beer bottles / slaughtered by the side / of the road, bird- / skulls bleaching in the sunset."

"Heroic" is obviously meant to be ironic, perhaps even oxymoronic, as it modifies "trail of destruction," akin to saying the happy trail of tears. The desolation is beer bottles and dead birds. While desolation might be too strong a word, the technical problem with this quartet of lines presents a more serious problem: "beer bottles / slaughtered by the side / of the road, bird- / skulls bleaching in the sunset."

At first blush, it seems that the speaker is claiming that the beer bottles were slaughtered, but common sense would dictate that, in fact, the slaughtered ones are the birds whose skulls are bleaching in the sun. The configuration of the lines causes the confusion—perhaps a semi-colon after bottles would help.

Third Movement: "I ought to be watching"

In this movement, the backdrop refers to herself, saying she should be "watching / from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront / when the shooting starts." The speaker seems to have forgotten who/what she is.

She very likely is part of the cliff or cardboard storefront because she is the BACKDROP. But her confusion continues as she gives herself hands which should be "clasped / in admiration." She proclaims that she should somehow admire the cowboy and his shooting.

Yet, it remains unclear why, except that the claim again stands like a straw man in a argument full of rhetorical fallacies because the speaker then asserts that even though she should be clasping her backdrop hands in admiration, she is elsewhere—indicating that her mind, her heart, her allegiance belong to someone or something other than the cowboy and his shenanigans.

Fourth Movement: "Then what about me"

The speaker then asks the cowboy a vacuous question: "what about me . . . ?" She then claims that she is the "I " who is "confronting [the cowboy] on that border, / [he is] always trying to cross?" Would that be the Mexican border, the Canadian border, or some imaginary, surrealistic, postmodernist border that only the speaker knows for sure?

Fifth Movement: "I am the horizon"

Finally, the manifesto, the I am, I am, I am: but all these I ams refer to one thing, the backdrop which is the horizon to which the cowboy rides. However, she then shifts back to personhood as the second I am surrounding the cowboy has a brain, and that brain is "scattered with [his] / tincans, bones, empty shells, / the litter of [his] invasion."

The final empty, limp last line: "I am the space you desecrate / as you pass through." The backdrop complains that the cowboy litters its space as he travels through it: a farcical, plastic cowboy despoils a backdrop that weaves in and out of humanhood. This backdrop could possibly benefit by studying some real cowboy poetry.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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