ASSIGNMENT 1 205L: Close Reading, Good Writing By Aly Verbaan Student # 31201792 Backdrop addresses cowboy By MARGARET ATWOOD Starspangled cowboy sauntering out of the almost- silly West, on your face a porcelain grin, tugging a papier-mache cactus on wheels behind you with a string, you are innocent as a bathtub full of bullets. Your righteous eyes, your laconic trigger-fingers people the streets with villains: as you move, the air in front of you blossoms with targets and you leave behind you a heroic trail of desolation: beer bottles slaughtered by the side of the road, bird- skulls bleaching in the sunset.
I ought to be watching from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront when the shooting starts, hands clasped in admiration, but I am elsewhere. Then what about me what about the I confronting you on that border, you are always trying to cross? I am the horizon you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso I am also what surrounds you: my brain scattered with your tincans, bones, empty shells, the litter of your invasions. I am the space you desecrate as you pass through. Selected Poems; 1974 The subversion of the (Western) male hero depicted in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Backdrop Addresses Cowboy’
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It would be impossible, as well as obtuse, to attempt to assay a literary work with such clear political and feminist themes as this one without taking into account the period in which it was written, as well as the biographical statistics of the author. Published by Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood in Selected Poems (1965-1975), it is my contention that Backdrop Addresses Cowboy must necessarily be considered within the ambit of American/Canadian politics of the time, as well the socio-sexual struggle against manifest feminine identity and stereotype, which, it may be argued, continues to the present day.
Furthermore, it is a fact that this poem was composed during the Vietnam War era (1955-1975) and I suggest that Backdrop Addresses Cowboy subverts not only the figure of the male hero, but the West, as represented by the United States of America, and its unwarranted colonial interference in that conflict. It is implied that the “star-spangled cowboy” symbolises Americanism, something Atwood has voiced her opinion of in many of her works and essays.
If we examine as the main theme the subversion of the male hero from Atwood’s feminist perspective, it is apparent that there is an inversion in the title, (which is presented in movie-script style) with the “backdrop” (the woman) addressing the “cowboy” (the man). Backdrops, or props, and in this instance, women, are usually the passive object, but Atwood is going on the attack, so to speak, and addressing this man/child in an accusing as well as condescending tone. The title itself is a conceptual reversal, wherein the backdrop becomes the subject and the “cowboy” is essentially receiving an extremely damning dressing-down.
In Power Impinging: Hearing Atwood’s Vision, literary critic Pat Sillers explains: “We should not expect that background always to be passive: sometimes the reader may find it necessary, in order to listen effectively, to assume a role, perhaps of the landscape or background, which listens and watches and also has a voice. ” Indeed, the landscape or backdrop makes it possible for the “cowboy” to exist, for without it he is defending nothing and cannot be a hero, or anything at all. Without stretching the analogy, this is feminism in its most extreme: without woman, there can be no man.
The sexual politics of oppressor-as-male conceit is not original, but Atwood uses the casually destructive, insensitive domination and invasion that characterises the destructive male-female association as an allegory for a global contagion. Structurally, the poem is unmistakeably divided into two “camps” – the “you” and the “I” – at precisely five stanzas of ten. This reinforces the division being drawn between man and woman, aggressor and victim, space and invader. The loosely iambic free verse is typical of protest poetry in general, and underpins the “I” as untameable, “the thing you can never lasso” (line 30).
In the first stanza Atwood creates a caricature of the American cowboy/child, and simultaneously indicates her known anti-American sentiments by portraying the cowboy as fake, weak and akin to a little boy playing imperialist Cowboys and Indians. The “almost-silly West”, broken over two lines, sets in motion an artifice, which is employed throughout Backdrop Addresses Cowboy, notably: “you are innocent as a bathtub full of bullets. ” (lines 7-8) and:”and you leave behind you a heroic trail of desolation: beer bottles slaughtered by the side f the road…” (lines 14-17) In each instance, the reader is set up in expectation of something harmless and heroic, respectively, only to be presented with quite the opposite. In the case of “you are innocent as a bathtub full of bullets”, Atwood is very possibly relegating the cowboy (and his American patriotism) to the dustbin of absurdity. A bathtub full of bullets is a bizarre metaphor and certainly does not call to mind innocence, but neither does it seem particularly threatening. Absurd and useless comes to mind, and perhaps this was its intention. One hopes it wasn’t simply because the alliteration of “bathtub” and “bullets” sounded appealing. ) Atwood builds her accusations steadily throughout the poem, starting with imagery of a rather asinine man who is more a boy with a toy than a genuine combatant. With the second stanza’s metaphor, something more threatening is foreshadowed, and from bullets we quickly move to guns, with “your laconic trigger fingers” (lines 9-10), also split over two lines. I take “laconic” to mean, in this instance, curt, to the point, deadly accurate and ready to kill.
The “cowboy” is now exposed as a suspicious, trigger-happy man/soldier, who anthimerically “peoples” the streets with villains (line 11) and causes the very air to blossom with targets (line 13). Again, the metaphor is effective precisely because of the paraprosdokian “blossoms with targets”, another indictment of man as destroyer. “Blossom” would ordinarily conjure up more feminine imagery of flowers, say, not shooting targets. By the fourth stanza, the American cowboy has morphed into a hard-drinking murderer, with the conjunctive “and you leave behind you a heroic rail of desolation” (lines14-15) employing the artifice of hyperbaton (once again) to separate “heroic” from “trail” – another expectational set-up. Similarly, one does not anticipate beer bottles being “slaughtered by the side of the road”, but the man/child is gone, and the casual sauntering game from the opening stanza has turned into an irresponsible and violent blood-fest. The stereotypical Western movie-set is a constant in Backdrop Addresses Cowboy, reaching the zenith of its comic effect with the prescriptive and sarcastically ironic I ought to be watching from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront when the shooting starts, hands clasped in admiration,” (lines 20-24) This is, of course, the marginal position that women are “expected” to take in issues of war or defence – the price of “being saved” is to be relegated to the periphery. At the same time, they are expected to be grateful, adulatory almost to the point of worship, effectively evoked by “hands clasped in admiration”. Atwood makes abundantly clear that this is not her female protagonist’s stance in line 24: “…but I am elsewhere. “
A strong undercurrent of non-resolution runs through Backdrop Addresses Cowboy, and picks up speed with the beginning of stanza six’s rhetorical question: “Then what about me”. I infer from the single-line stanza the intent to stand alone, of being attached to no one (or no man, in particular), and then the move into full confrontation with the cowboy in stanza seven as having several possible implications, all equally viable, I believe. “That border you are always trying to cross” (lines 27-28) is symptomatic of a number of dysfunctional relationships: inter-gender, inter-national (American-Canadian) and international.
In each instance, it is the implication that the “cowboy” as man, as America, is invasive and hell-bent on appropriation. I am not sure whether there is such a word as “politico-sexual”, but this is what comes to mind reading stanza seven. Certainly, by the time the speaker reveals herself in stanza five, the caricature of the Western cowboy playing a part has been thoroughly lampooned and revealed as a dangerous, bigoted aggressor. Ultimately, there is no closure to this standoff, and the “I” makes it patent that she is not attainable in any real sense; like the horizon, one can never “get” her or “lasso” her (line 30).
This line uses zoomorphism to a variety of ends: if the “you” is a cowboy, then “the thing you can never lasso” is logically a head of cattle or a horse, a disturbing comparison of woman as animal, or “meat”. “I am the horizon” (line 29) epitomises the thematic thread: that of woman/country as environment/landscape that is being “desecrated” (line36), the space that is being invaded, which, if one were to take this analogy of women being a space that is “desecrated” to its extreme, but logical (in my opinion), conclusion, refers to rape (although there is no specific reference to the female anatomy, except as space).
Environmentally, socially and sexually, this cowboy/hero/soldier mindlessly destroys everything he surveys, and it is my contention that as a simulacrum of America, this “cowboy” is still fully operational to the present day, some thirty-six years after the poem was penned. The penultimate stanza is extremely loaded, and Backdrop Addresses Cowboy, as oppositional and subversive poetry, seems to culminate in a highly pejorative pronouncement on propaganda, here represented by the set of the highly biased and unreliable narration of the cliched Hollywood Western movie.
Stanza nine’s tincans and empty shells (line 34) are more empty vessels, like the cowboy, perhaps, and “the litter of your invasions” is so laden with accusations and contempt as to be the subject of its own dissertation. In conclusion, the progression of parody to irony to satire and then to direct accusation in Backdrop Addresses Cowboy puts women squarely in one “camp” and men in another. One can be fairly certain that many men would feel alienated and even offended by Atwood’s narrative, particularly if it were interpreted the way I have, and would find it divisive in the extreme and the tension disconcertingly unresolved.
Bibliography Margaret Atwood, “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy”, Selected Poems (1965-1975). Virago Press, 1976. Pat Sillers, Power Impinging: Hearing Atwood’s Vision, Volume 4. 1. http://www. lib. unb. ca/Texts/SCL/bin/get. cgi? directory=vol4_1/&filename=sillers. htm. 1979. Malcolm Peet and David Robinson, Leading Questions. Nelson Thornes Ltd. , 2004. Jim Benz. Suite101: Backdrop addresses cowboy by Margaret Atwood: Reality Indicts Simulacrum. 2010. http://webcache. googleusercontent. com/search? q=cache:5cbkgYolOSMJ:canadian-poetry. suite101. com/article. cfm Declaration Name: Aly Verbaan Student number: 31201792
Assignment topic: Assignment 01 for ENN205L – Backdrop Addresses Cowboy by Margaret Atwood. I declare that this assignment is my own original work. Where secondary material has been used (either from a printed source or from the internet) this has been carefully acknowledged and referenced in accordance with departmental requirements. I understand what plagiarism is and am aware of the department’s policy in this regard. I have not allowed anyone else to borrow or copy my work. [Furthermore, other than the quote from Pat Sillers’s work, which is referenced in the text, I have not quoted anyone. ] Aly Verbaan 18 September 2010