Poetry 75: Bored by Margaret Atwood

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All those times I was bored
out of my mind. Holding the log
while he sawed it. Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows
of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored)
weeded. Or sat in the back
of the car, or sat still in boats,
sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel
he drove, steered, paddled. It
wasn’t even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details. Myopia. The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the graying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows. He pointed
such things out, and I would look
at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under
the nail. Why do I remember it as sunnier
all the time then, although it more often
rained, and more birdsong?
I could hardly wait to get
the hell out of there to
anywhere else. Perhaps though
boredom is happier. It is for dogs or
groundhogs. Now I wouldn’t be bored.
Now I would know too much.
Now I would know.

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

4 thoughts on “Poetry 75: Bored by Margaret Atwood

  1. This seems to be about a sensually and physically focused state that has largely gone beyond boredom: “it wasn’t even boredom, it was looking”. Boredom, in my experience, is a left-hemisphere focused impatient state, wanting new satisfactions according to its model of the world and impatient with having to put up with mere receptive experience. Boredom wants goals and their achievement, wants little rushes of dopamine as we get what we “want”. But by the time you start looking as closely at things as Atwood describes then I suspect the boredom is falling away and giving place to more subtle and immediate goals.

    Is this a mis-titled poem? I suppose it is about a state that might seem boring from the outside, from that state of impatience. But it’s not largely about the actual state of being bored. Perhaps in that sense it is meant to be ironic, to show how much “boredom” is just a label.

  2. To me she does seem to be saying that she perceived those experiences as boring at the time. Certainly, when I was younger I craved for more bells and whistles. The last few years I’ve been going on a week long silent retreat doing lots of meditation but where nothing much else happens and I spend a lot of time in ‘neutral’. On these retreats my hedonic barometer that has settings of say ecstasy at 10 and and agony at -10 is normally hovering around 0, a state in the past I’ve often perceived as boring. What I’ve learnt from this in a very embodied sense is that while this neutral state is not pumping me with dopamine, it is actually quite pleasant and relaxing . This is one of the most tangible benefits I believe I’ve got from a regular meditation practice. A few years ago, if I had had to sit for 20 minutes in a doctor’s surgery, I’d have very quickly reached for a glossy magazine. I’m a lot more content now to just there and be there. On the retreat I mentioned, they don’t have groundhogs but the do have wild rabbits in the grounds and I often feel a real affinity with them in the evening when I sit outside munching on my evening meal and they nibbling on the grass.

  3. It’s Atwood, so I think it’s impossible to not look at the gender dynamic, too.

    The female position is placed into what seems, initially, as “boredom.” To always be receptive and inactive: to not be a participant (she does not “drive, steer, or paddle,” which suggests through those words a lack of agency–agency either held or taken-up by the male position, whereas she is relegated to a dichotomous opposite. Hence, to be “inactive” is, here, conflated with boredom). According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary online (I prefer the OED but it’s broken today for some reason!), boredom is defined as “weary and restless through lack of interest,” so I might surmise that inactivity itself relates to “lack of interest” (demonstrated by the state of boredom). That said, and perhaps further, when one’s subject position is forced to take the (literal and figurative) “back [seat] / of the car,” one is forced into “inactivity,” but one might also be presumed to be “uninterested” by others. That is to say that the female subject might be surmised as exemplifying “uninterest” in the male subject’s world: he places her there and he assumes that’s her place to begin with.

    However, she revises agency, forming the “boredom” of inactivity and non-participation into the verb “looking,” to be engaged with sight and seeing. So although the male position is pointing out various details about the world he observes (“grain by grain […] / […] He pointed / such things out…”), the female speaker looks elsewhere, looks and sees “…the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under / the nail.” In fact, she is looking at him directly, rather than at the details of the world through which he would gain her attention and prescribe her “interest.”

    But what about a gaze that looks somewhere not expected by the person attempting to direct that gaze? Then the speaker says “Why do I remember it as sunnier / all the time then, although it more often / rained, and more birdsong?” The speaker, through reminiscence, asks “why” those past scenes are “remembered […] as sunnier” despite the “rain,” which suggests that sometimes we see and memorialize beyond the actual scene, recreating that scene in our own mind as different than its observable reality. So “looking” is more than just a gaze, but it is envisioning the world and remaking that world, or maybe “looking” through and past one kind of veil–looking past the male subject’s view of the world–in order to see something altogether different.

    I would love to write/consider more of this, especially in relation to the last few lines, but I’m procrastinating other pressing work (naturally)!

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