Postcard, a poem by Margaret Atwood

This year I’m experimenting a little with the blog, and writing about poems is something I want to try. This is not a poem I have spent months dwelling over, reciting and loving. It is a poem I stumbled across the other week, on Poem Hunter, during one of my usual guilty-pleasure John-Donne-reading-sessions. 

Postcard by Margaret Atwood:

I’m thinking about you. What else can I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds, blue & elusive.

Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it’s called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there’s race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.

Outside the window
they’re building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone’s
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can’t be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you’re a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave

in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

First, allow me a moment to appreciate just how post-card-ly the writing is. Crisp, somewhat direct lines and abrupt pacing, the punctuation: look at all the &s, a fitting effect. The poem has this wistful tone I cannot get over. “What else can I say?” I am no expert, but this is how planned letters all sound, don’t they? Especially those you write to people who know you the best. You sit down to write and don’t know where to start, how to end, and feel a general loss for words that you fill up with routine descriptions till you get into the rhythm of it – and by the time you’ve finally dug deep enough into the meaning-well, the postcard ends. And short letters are like that, they don’t seem to say much at all to anyone except who they’re meant for. The poem leaves so much unsaid, so many blanks to fill. 
You know how a postcard hardly ever looks anything like the real place? The palm trees and the pink sand are a rosy delusion. The first lines of the poem remind me of something from, excuse the ill-timed reference, How I Met Your Mother, about how Lily insists on taking these fake “happy” pictures where their dazzling smiles conveniently hide all evidence of the disasters that led up to the photos. The poet is thinking of a lover she’s distanced from, both physically and emotionally, and what comes to her in that moment is her rosiest happy post-card memory of him. She draws the comparison herself then and tries to wash it away, brings herself to face the fact that it’s only a delusion, eventually gives up and talks about the humdrum of her routine. 

She’s on vacation at a beach, in one of those ‘poor-country’ settings that had I been a little better at geography, I would have been able to name: the heat, the mosquitoes, the pocked roads, that local newspaper, a howling child and rooster and a hotel being built right beside – you get the picture. An extended vacation, it looks like, because she speaks of seasons and as a seasoned resident not a traveller, or maybe it’s a permanent temporary-move till she’s ready to go back, if ever. She calls the hotel someone’s crumbling dream, then remembers her own crumbling wish. Her old relationship seems to her a flimsy facade, like the hotel, that she knows will run out of business as they do in those parts even as it is being built, a failure even if it is physically there. A part of her wonders, “a universe that includes you can’t be all bad”, what could matter as long as she gets to be with him. And she finds the answer right there in the postcard – one that she might be about to send him, there’s the place for the address, but should she? When all she has of him is what she is about to send him – a botched slice of the truth. The postcard will reveal nothing of what she feels, just as her memory shows her only a skewed agreeable “glossy” image of him.  

She concludes with how it still hurts, time comes in waves and she floats on it, not moving ahead, not ready to go back to the past either. And love comes in waves too, she is caught up in them. This is the second time she mentions the rolling waves on her beach, in the middle of nowhere. And so the poem ends hauntingly with images of water, filling and pounding inside her, of drowning. It begs the question, is this her final note?
This was fun for me, a mind-exercise I would love to repeat on the blog. I would also love to know what you make of the poem, your interpretation, if you see something I’m missing? Not to mention, poem recommendations would be very welcome. Happy reading!
Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at

8 thoughts on “Postcard, a poem by Margaret Atwood”

  1. You read John Donne as a guilty pleasure…um, that's pretty amazing. Not going to lie, I'm kinda in love with you right now. You don't see a lot of bloggers focusing on poetry at all (they are bound to be out there but I haven't come across many) and it was something that I have contemplated doing more often on my blog as well. I posted a couple of poem reviews but they seemed to scare people away, hehe.

    Atwood is such a talented writer, she can do it all: novels, short-stories, critical essays, plays, and yes, poetry. It doesn't surprise me that she is our country's most celebrated author.

    Your close-reading of the poem is quite excellent, especially regarding Atwood's specific structure and rhetoric as a 'poetic' representation of a postcard. The fragmented style and free-verse help to emphasize the speaker's vacillating mindset and emotional state. There are barely any caesuras and this "abrupt pacing" that you so keenly pointed is indicative of this discursive and descriptive style often found on postcards. The ebbing and flowing of thought as reflected in the movement of the waves is a nice touch by Atwood.

    I also like when you write this: "The poem leaves so much unsaid, so many blanks to fill." I couldn't agree more. The poem is a personal reflection, purposefully ambiguous and can only be understood best by the intended recipient. The reader is can only try to piece the puzzle together, filling in the the autobiographical details through inference. Incidentally, is the speaker referring to a male lover as you suggest or perhaps to someone else? It is never made exactly clear even though that seems to be the implication.

    Interesting that you mention that the poem reveals nothing of the speaker's feelings because I felt the complete opposite. To me, the poem is layered with a plethora of emotions: fear, regret, desire, cynicism. nostalgia, love, etc but is more concerned with the difficulty of expressing those feelings coherently–hence, the fragmented style. The exact details of what the speaker is describing while sitting on the beach aren't as important as the emotions they convey. The last few lines suggest the speaker as heartbroken, viewing love as a cruel mistress that causes nothing but pain and suffering ("a sickness"). Is it an unrequited love or a failed relationship? I don't know. The ending isn't very hopeful though. I do believe that the the postcard is her "final note" as you put it. A memento of lost love.

    I have a great difficultly recommend poems or poets to others. I find poetry to be a far more intimate and personal experience than reading novels or any other form of literature for that matter. Some favorites of mine include John Keats, Derek Walcott, E.E. Cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

    I really hope you continue to post more poetry-related stuff on your blog. 🙂


  2. Hi Jason, I am very flattered by your comment. I'm still pretty new to appreciating poetry and I fumble with most great poets, except somehow Donne (whom I also had to study a bit) hence I call it my secret-guilty-pleasure reading. Maybe someday I'll write about him! I am glad you liked the post – it was lounging in my drafts over the weekend and I debated whether I should post it. I am happy I did. Atwood is certainly a prolific writer, I definitely need to read more of her work.

    I have an inexplicable bias to traditional meter patterns, and I prefer them to what is considered more liberating – free verse (mostly because I don't always quite 'get it') But it is in poems like these that what you've called the 'fragmented' style works for me. Maybe the free form is an acquired taste, something I'll just learn to appreciate! The ebbing and flowing of thought, that's a great way to put it.

    You know, you're right I guess, saying that the postcard doesn't reveal her feelings is a little self-contradictory of me! The tone does have more to do with this seeming difficulty with expression – the 'at a loss for words' state… I really only assumed she is referring to a lover. It didn't even occur to me it could be someone else until you pointed it out. (Hey, this is why I love blogging!) Wouldn't that shed a whole new light on the poem?

    I think I am beginning to like the guessing-game that is reading poems; even things "open to interpretation" are so much more explicit in novels! It is a personal experience, I guess, more so perhaps than other literature forms like you've said, but what use is a book blog if you don't share it anyway! I've read some of e.e. cummings and will browse online for the others you've mentioned. Now, I'm off to your site to find those poetry posts. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂


  3. Hey priya I love the fact that you're doing a poem review! This actually gives me an idea to do poem reviews too! I do love the works of john donne 🙂 Margaret Atwood, havent really read a lot by her so I'm still new to her way of writing! well I love poem hunter haha I have been reading poems off that website since quite a few years now! do try poetry foundation too, I've been hooked to the latter lately.

    to answer your previous question, I'm not really reading any fiction these days, more of the business books and the poetry. A lot of poetry in fact. So you can imagine why I love you doing the poem review 🙂


  4. Sabeeha, honestly, having you back in the blogging world was one of the reasons I decided to finally try posting about poetry – I knew I'd have this one reader! I have never been on Poetry Foundation, will try now. I have read two books by Atwood, and she's a real must-read – read Oryx and Crake, if you ever want to try her! Please do write about poetry; I would definitely love to read poem reviews by you, a learning opportunity for me! 🙂


  5. I've always thought poetry was really hard to dissect and make heads and tails of. It is so much more intimate than a novel or short story.
    I liked your interpretation, and the mention of the mango in the text reminded me of Asia.
    I've only read The Blind Assassin by Atwood and didn't like it much, most likely I was too young and it went over my head. I'd like to read The Handmaid's Tale just because it's dystopian and I love these kind of books.
    Yeats, now that's a poet I've been meaning to read for a while. Perhaps I should try my hand at this "poem dissecting" as well.


  6. Delia – It will be mango season soon enough here in India, so I do get your Asia-connection! I am on the fence about A Handmaid's Tale, but curious to know what you make of it when you do read it. I'm sure you will be great at poem-dissecting – I grt your point, like Jason, about poems being intimate or personal, but I don't see why this should stop one from writing about the experience. Every reading is to an extent personal, anyway!


  7. She's such a good poet, isn't she? Seems effortless, the effect is naturalistic, but deep and I think you captured all that in your analysis.


  8. Hey! This was really great. Could you please do a review on the poem speak to me, brother by Hone Tuwhare?



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