I decided to do a brief close reading analysis of this poem, as well as discuss its function as a “confessional” poem.
Edouard Manet’s painting entitled “Olympia” was based on his predecessor Titan’s “The Venus of Urbino”. Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of this painting captures the emotion of the subject of the piece: a reclined naked woman, who may not be as tranquil as Manet intended. Atwood uses multiple forms of diction in this poem including: raised, casual, sexual, and slang. The words describe the painting itself, however, the tone of Atwood’s poem suggests an underlying purpose of the woman being painted; the woman in the painting’s posture “hardly” exemplifies relaxation of reclining. The tone of this poem is executed by the grammar that Atwood uses: the comma usage in the first line: “She reclines, more or less”, creates a hierarchy in which the clause after the comma denotes the clause before the comma.
One interesting aspect of this poem is that Atwood is constantly undermining her own rhetoric, which can be seen in lines such as: “Try that posture, it’s hardly languor”, “The windows (if any) are shut”, and “the flower behind her ear is naturally, not real”. The fact that this woman is posing for the painting automatically detracts from her sultry “offering” position, and Atwood makes the discomfort that the woman in the painting may be feeling, felt by her own audience. The artificiality that ensues the painting makes for a more interesting interpretation through Atwood’s piece.
This interpretation (that I got from this poem) was definitely heavily related to gender performance, and how women are expected to keep poise, even through discomfort. Gender performativity makes it’s appearance in Atwood’s poem, in that this woman’s femininity is iterated for the gentleman in the room that is painting her or at least observing the scene. The last stanza is again indicative of the sexual prowess that results from the attempt to conform to her gender role:
I, the head, am the only subject
of this picture.
You, Sir, are furniture.
The final line serves not only as a sucker punch to the audience, but it also drives home the point of the gentleman being objectified, as the woman usually is. The effect of the undermining tone can be felt, as Atwood makes it clear that the woman is not just a pretty face that one might glance over; her pose takes effort and strength. One interpretation that I got from this reading, was that the woman, however still she may appear, is not the object of this piece, but rather a dynamic force whose motion is iterated by Atwood’s verse.
Just some thought’s on this poem, let me know what you guys think!