October 16th, 2012
Mythology: Because I’m Too Jaded to Write about Love
An allusion is a casual or passing reference to a famous historical or fictional character. In poetry, allusions are often used to help reinforce a point or characterize the speaker or the addressee. In the case of Margaret Atwood’s poems, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” and “Sekhmet Lion-Headed Goddess of War”, allusions are used to empower and change the way we view the female speaker.
This is especially obvious in “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”. The poem is about a stripper, which is considered to be quite a degrading job in today’s society. Normally such a protagonist would be looked down upon and pitied by the readers, and yet through allusions to Helen of Troy (a woman widely considered to be the most beautiful of the ancient world, and also the sole cause of the Trojan War according to myth) the speaker comes off as superior to women with “respectable” jobs, and also to the men who watch her, when you would think it would be the other way around. In using lines such as “I don’t let on to everyone, / but lean close and I’ll whisper: / My mother was raped by a holy swan” (Countertop, 59-61) Atwood references Helen of Troy’s links to the Gods of Greek mythology (her father was Zeus; he had appeared to Helen’s mother in the form of a golden swan and raped [or had consensual sex with, depending on the version of the story that you read] her), and makes her speaker seem otherworldly and goddess-like in doing so. Instead of feeling ashamed of herself for her employment, the speaker feels superior in that she can make so many men swoon, much like Helen of Troy, and also in the knowledge that they cannot lay a finger on her; “I hover six inches in the air/ in my blazing swan-egg of light. / You think I’m not a goddess? / Try me. / This is a touch song. / Touch me and you’ll burn.” (Countertop, 78-83). Atwood uses these allusions to aid...