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Poetry Ms.

Kerman A Prisoner of Her Past

Zara Hoffman 11/19/12

Margaret Atwood's poem "Up" chronicles the speaker's thought processes in her various attempts to combat her depression; her hope is to rekindle her will to live, despite her past actions and the unknown future. Throughout the poem, the speaker addresses herself in the second person as she tries to wake herself up. Her fear and depression, however, prevent her from getting out of bed to face the world. The constant battle between her past and future, as well as the ideas of death and decay are prominent themes throughout the poem. The first line of the poem, "You wake up filled with dread" (1), illustrates the speaker's omnipresent anxiety concerning the future. This is reiterated in the third stanza when the speaker emphasizes the intimidating nature of the future: "What prevents you? The future. The future tense, / immense as outer space. / You could get lost out there" (13-14). However, the speaker can't float off into space because her past shackles her to her bed: "The past, its density / and drowned events pressing you down, / like sea water, like gelatin / filling your lungs instead of air" (6-9). Unlike her abstract fear of the future, the weight of her past is concretely manifested on a physical level. The contrasting descriptions of the past and future in the third stanza suggest that the speaker is even more burdened by her history than her anxiety about the future. The experience of suffocating is mirrored in the fourth and fifth stanzas: first, when the speaker imagines herself in a burning building, and second, when she addresses a "huge No that surrounds you" (29). In the fourth stanza, the speaker refuses to leave a metaphorical burning building because she has lost the will to live. If one continued this line of logic, eventually the smoke would inhibit her ability to breath, ending in death. The fifth stanza describes the speaker's artificially happy room, a failed previous attempt to lighten her mood. The stanza itself starts out with the paranoid question: "Where is it coming from, this echo, / this huge No that

surrounds you, silent as the folds of the yellow / curtains" (27-30). Yellow, sometimes considered loud and flamboyant, is a color that is generally associated with happiness. However, the yellow curtains are disempowered by silence and so is the "cheerful / Mexican bowl" (30-31) in her room. She likens the omnipresent "No" (28) to her silent surroundings, but because of its menacing connotations, it's deafening. In addition, these lighthearted furnishings were meant to make her happy as she states: "You chose the colors of the sun, / not the dried neutrals of shadow. / God knows you've tried" (33-34). It was a conscious decision for her to place yellow curtains on her window and to buy a vibrant Mexican bowl, but even her attempt at artificially imposing happiness on herself fails. In the second stanza, the speaker states that she "do[es] not dare to eat" (12); she cannot consume the nutrients necessary for survival. Not only does she have a fear of eating, she is afraid of becoming prey, a concept prevalent in animalistic environments, like the "jungle /foliage" (7-8) formed by her "crumpled sheets" (6): "the terry slippers gaping / their dark pink mouths for your feet" (8-9) that are waiting to eat her provide another source of "dread" as mentioned in the first line of the poem. This is another instance where her senses are inhibited. At this point, the speaker cannot move, eat, breathe, or hear; she is living completely cut off from the world, and because of her malnutrition, the speaker's depression becomes life-threatening. Her mortality is addressed in the final stanza. In the sixth stanza, as a final attempt to wake herself up, the speaker imagines she's on her deathbed and that she needs to forgive someone. The implication is that she's been harboring a grudge, a powerful entity of the past. Forgiveness and the subsequent release of that grudge could possible be successful at launching her into the future. This is almost in complete contrast to the third stanza, where the past held her back from entering the future; here it is the engine that propels her into the future before she dies.

The speaker in Margaret Atwood's poem "Up," attempts to fight her depression throughout the poem; the reader, however, is left without knowing whether she is successful and can finally get out of bed. This uncertainty is consistent with the speaker's anxiety about the future, and it provokes the reader into wanting to get up and move in fear of the consequences of being still for too long. The poem not only shows the speaker's struggle with depression, but it gives the message that the only thing that's more frightening than the future is being imprisoned by the past.