205L: Close Reading, Good Writing
By Aly Verbaan
Student # 31201792
Backdrop addresses cowboy
By MARGARET ATWOOD
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:
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
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:
scattered with your
tincans, bones, empty shells,
the litter of your invasions.
I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.
Selected Poems; 1974
The subversion of the (Western) male hero depicted in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Backdrop Addresses Cowboy’
It would be impossible, as well as obtuse, to attempt to assay a literary work with such clear political and feminist themes as this one without taking into account the period in which it was written, as well as the biographical statistics of the author. Published by Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood in Selected Poems (1965-1975), it is my contention that Backdrop Addresses Cowboy must necessarily be considered within the ambit of American/Canadian politics of the time, as well the socio-sexual struggle against manifest feminine identity and stereotype, which, it may be argued, continues to the present day. Furthermore, it is a fact that this poem was composed during the Vietnam War era (1955-1975) and I suggest that Backdrop Addresses Cowboy subverts not only the figure of the male hero, but the West, as represented by the United States of America, and its unwarranted colonial interference in that conflict. It is implied that the “star-spangled cowboy” symbolises Americanism, something Atwood has voiced her opinion of in many of her works and essays. If we examine as the main theme the subversion of the male hero from Atwood’s feminist perspective, it is apparent that there is an inversion in the title, (which is presented in movie-script style) with the “backdrop” (the woman) addressing the “cowboy” (the man). Backdrops, or props, and in this instance, women, are usually the passive object, but Atwood is going on the attack, so to speak, and addressing this man/child in an accusing as well as condescending tone. The title itself is a conceptual reversal, wherein the backdrop becomes the subject and the “cowboy” is essentially receiving an extremely damning dressing-down. In Power Impinging: Hearing Atwood’s Vision, literary critic Pat Sillers explains: “We should not expect that background always to be passive: sometimes the reader may find it necessary, in order to listen effectively, to assume a role, perhaps of the landscape or background, which listens and watches and also has a voice.” Indeed, the landscape or backdrop makes it possible for the “cowboy” to exist, for without it he is defending nothing and cannot be a hero, or anything at all. Without stretching the analogy, this is feminism in its most extreme: without woman, there can be no man.
The sexual politics of oppressor-as-male conceit is not original, but Atwood uses the casually destructive, insensitive domination and invasion that characterises the destructive male-female association as an allegory for a global contagion.
Structurally, the poem is unmistakeably divided into two “camps” – the “you” and the “I” – at precisely five stanzas of ten. This reinforces...
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