Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Wooden people


A couple of totem poles were on display in the covered great court of the British Museum. Denuded of their bright paint, austere and monumental, they stretched right up to the glass roof which normally hangs far above any exhibit, its diamond panes like a strange inner sky, patterning and diffusing the light. They were grand and compelling, though bizarrely out of place among the classical pillars and the crowds of visitors who were milling, chattering, busy buying food and souvenirs or clapped out on the floor. They made me smile, as always (their extremeness and their solid themness). I snatched a few photos before my camera batteries went dead, and later, as so often happens, found their accompanying text - posted by Miriam at Escrituraleatoria. The vision is a harsh one, as I suspect mine would be harsher if their native land was mine.
Totems

We went to the park
where they kept the wooden people:
static, multiple
uprooted and trans-
planted.

Their faces were restored,
freshly-painted.
In front of them
the other wooden people
posed for each other´s cameras
and nearby a new booth
sold replicas and souvenirs.

One of the people was real.
It lay on its back, smashed
by a toppling fall or just
the enduring of minor winters.
Only one of the heads had
survived intact, and it was
also beginning to decay
but there was a
life in the progressing
of old wood back to
the earth, obliteration

that the clear-hewn
standing figures lacked.

As for us, perennial watchers,
tourists of another kind
there is nothing for us to worship;
no pictures of ourselves, no blue-
sky summer fetishes, no postcards
we can either buy, or
smiling
be.

There are few totems that remain
living for us.
Though in passing,
through glass we notice

dead trees in the seared meadows
dead roots bleaching in the swamps.

Margaret Atwood



2 comments:

marja-leena said...

Oh, an Atwood poem! I haven't seen this one. Makes me think of the decaying totems in the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and of Emily Carr who painted them.

Dale said...

Nice. There are some glimmerings now of sensitivity about the totem poles, around here, but not very damn much.