Not a Debate, but a Duet: Margaret Atwood’s “Two-Headed Poems”

Two-HeadedPoemsMargaret Atwood’s collection Two-Headed Poems explores the nature of several dualities.  Each poem has two minds of is its own and is told by a speaker who feels two contradictory emotions, often regarding human dependency.  The division of emotion makes each poem monstrous in a sense.  Like a Siamese twin, two bodies joined together and living codependently, the speaker of each poem relies on another human for survival.  Within this collection, specifically the poems “Two Miles Away” and “You Begin,” the voices of the speaker “speak sometime singly, sometimes/ together, sometimes alternately” (Atwood 59). Each poem diverges off on its own path, but remains joined to the other pieces in the collection.  As the speaker states in the title poem, “Two-Headed Poems,” the poems are “like all Siamese twins” because “they dream of separation” but cannot exist once detached from one another (Atwood 59).

The poems within Two-Headed Poems narrate a single speaker’s journey through dichotomous emotions.  The narrative arc of the speaker’s understanding ties the poems together: she begins unwilling to accept relationships, questions dependence, and eventually accepts that the give-and-take relationship is how the world works.  The voice of each poem is simultaneously feeling conflicting emotions, most often dealing with the equal desire to stay in a relationship and to leave it behind.  “Two Headed Poems,” the title poem, is the key for understanding the larger narrative of this poetry collection.  It marks the center of the collection and signifying a change in the speaker’s attitude.  Though at first she questions dependence on another person, she begins to see the love that can be gained from such a relationship and slowly accepts dependence.

Atwood begins “Two-Headed Poems” begins with an epigraph from a Canadian newspaper: “Joined Head to Head, and still alive” (Atwood 59).  Though this headline was used to describe actual Siamese twins, Atwood adopts it as a headline for her poetry.  This epigraph serves a lens through which she expects the reader to see not only the title poem, but all of the works in this collection.  It shows how her poems operate through ties and connections; through replication with variation.  Though the images and speaker’s emotions are often “joined head to head,” they do not feel repetitive or dull, but more interesting (Atwood 59).  In some cases, the conflicting emotions may seem gruesome and monstrous, but “still alive” (Atwood 59).

Early in this collection, the speaker questions what is lost by becoming part of a pair.  Siamese twins often share body parts, organs that neither twin could live without.  She is reluctant to lose herself in another person, as evident in “Two Miles Away.”  Atwood portrays an interest in the self versus relationship, whether that relationship is to a lover, a daughter, or to nature.  In “Two Miles Away,” the speaker imagines a place away from home, a place “two miles away,” which creates a distance from normal life (Atwood 21).  This place two miles away is described as “the land of hope/ fulfilled,” a place where questionable situations end positively.

Though the imagined place is “a desert”—a landscape which requires certain knowledge and skill to survive—there is some spiritual cleansing to be found in such an extreme climate (Atwood 21).  The speaker, aware of her surroundings, understands that she cannot successfully traverse the desert alone; she needs a partner for survival.  This poem takes place at night, and the land “smell[s]of thunder,” a promise of rain (Atwood 21).  Rainstorms are regenerative.  In the desert, they represent the link between the barren landscape and life.

The speaker then sees everything as an agent for connection and creates relationships by tying partners together in the world around her, such as “the hammock” which “weaves one tree to another” (Atwood 21).  Instead of the trees serving the hammock, the speaker sees the hammock as serving the trees by bringing them together, creating a partnership between two entities.  She then notices the “sandbox in moonlight” and “the green shovel” within it (Atwood 22).  Similar to the two trees and hammock, the sandbox would be meaningless without the shovel, the shovel meaningless without a place in which to dig.  The speaker sees everything as a relationship and begins to understand how mutual dependence is what keeps the world alive.

However, the speaker is not sure if she can envision herself in such a dependent relationship.  She questions, “Is this where I want to be,/ Is this who I want to be with” because she is unsure if she wants to continue with a relationship (Atwood 22).  Her fears of becoming “half of a pair,/ half of a custom” show her ruminating on the concept of losing herself to the relationship.  By joining with a partner, she would no longer be whole.  The custom of giving herself over to another to create something new, like the hammock and the trees, leaves her with the inability to be whole on her own.

The speaker would become, in a sense, a Siamese twin.  Her life would then be dependent on the life of another human.  The speaker considers all possibilities within in the realm of her existence instead of settling for what has been provided to her.  Though she is aware of the softness of “nose against neck” and “knee thrown/ over the soft groin,” she cannot give herself completely over to the custom (Atwood 22).  She instead “dream[s] of separation,” lending the poem its dichotomous nature (Atwood 59).

AtwoodThe notion of dreaming drives the poems in this collection.  In the title poem, the speaker’s dreams “are of freedom, a hunger/ for verbs, a song/ which rises liquid and effortless” (Atwood 74).  Like “Two Miles,” this poem yearns to be free, to live without connection to another being.  The speaker likens freedom to “a hunger/ for verbs,” a metaphor that shows a deep appreciation for not only the action, but language.  The action of the verbs is not as important as the words used to symbolize the action; the words create “a song/ which rises liquid and effortless” (Atwood 74).  The speaker believes the hunger she feels is natural, and therefore rises as effortlessly as a “double/ gliding beside [her]” (Atwood 74).  Here, she completely discloses her obsession with the nature of duality.  She explains that there are two selves: a self, and a double.  The double perhaps ventures away from the self, as in a dream, and lives the individual life the speaker craves.

The speaker explores yet another duality of human nature in naming “our other dream to be mute” (Atwood 74).  According to the title poem, we all dream of silence, of an inability to voice our emotions.  The speaker, aware of her duplicities, investigates how simple life could be without the capability to be self-aware.  However, this dream of silence will never be realized, not for the speaker of these poems.  The poem takes opposing viewpoints, which creates a constant dialogue.  The speaker is always in conversation with herself.

By the end of the title poem, the speaker realizes that her dreams “are not bargains” (Atwood 74).  We humans cannot trade our dreams for comprehension or singularity in our emotions.  Often, “[our dreams] settle nothing” because they are not equal to any currency of understanding (Atwood 74).  The dialogue is a symbol of survival, of life.  If not in conversation, then no discoveries can be made.

“You Begin,” the final poem of this collection, is in direct dialogue with the title poem.  This poem is presented in second person, a craft choice most poets would shy away from.  Writing in the third person removes agency from the speaker and addresses the reader directly.  The poem assumes a dominant position as well as a commanding tone by listing instructions for the reader.  In “You Begin,” the poem declares: “This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world” (Atwood 109).  The speaker releases any previous insecurity.  She attempts to settle any disparate emotions toward relationships by examining the physical realm: what is directly in front of us.  By pointing out what is tangible, what can be seen and felt and heard, the speaker is letting go of her uncertainty and instead turning to things that cannot lie or be wrongly interpreted.

Next, the speaker directs the reader’s attention to the outside world.  She points out that “outside the window/ is the rain, green/ because it is summer” (Atwood 109).  This line hearkens back to the desert in “Two Miles Away,” where a rainstorm approaches the barren land.  Now, at the end of the collection, the rain has come.  The world is green “because it is summer”—the fruition of life.  Beyond the window is the world, “which is round” (Atwood 109).  The speaker brings our attention to the simple facts which we take for granted.  She understands that things are sometimes different than they appear: this same world “is fuller/ and more difficult to learn than I have said” (Atwood 109).  This line is a plea for the reader to see beyond the obvious, to imagine beyond binary thinking.

The obsession with duality becomes an understanding of the circumspective nature of the world.  Once again, the speaker repeats that the world “is round but not flat” and explains that “it begins, it has an end” which “is what you will/ come back to” (Atwood 110).  Using sparse language and short line lengths, Atwood creates a voice which questions the nature of the world.  Dialogue with the self and the world is necessary if we are to understand our world.  In the title poem, the speaker comes to the realization that this constant communication “is not a debate/ but a duet/ with two deaf singers” (Atwood 74).  In this centerpiece poem, both the speaker and the self are singing a duet, but neither can hear herself or the other.  All of the poems, including “You Begin” reflect the duet in some way.

The speaker effectively shows that the dualities of the world surpass black and white, but extend into an unrealizable spectrum of gray; in fact, there are “more colors/ than we can see” (Atwood 110).  She urges the reader to consider all the possibilities that may not be obvious at first, both in the outside world and within the realm of the self.  The speaker continues to assume the role of a teacher by explaining to the reader that “once you have learned these words/ you will learn that there are more/ words than you can ever learn” (Atwood 110).  Here, the speaker seems to be completing the narrative arc of Two-Headed Poems.  She is acknowledging that she has grown: at the beginning of the book, she did not know much about the world, but has now learned enough to know that it is impossible for anyone to learn everything.

Though the poems “speak sometime singly, sometimes/ together, sometimes alternately,” they constantly depend on one another to survive in the world of dualities and uncertainties (Atwood 59).  By the final poem in the collection, the speaker realizes that like the poems, people must not only depend on one another, but allow themselves to be depended upon.  She understands this notion by “You Begin” and not only allows herself to embrace human relationships, but welcomes the reader to depend upon her.  She has learned that she must approach the dichotomous nature of emotions as “a debate/ but a duet” and listen for the beauty, not competition, of a relationship (Atwood 74).

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