I am drawn to Margaret Atwood’s “Asparagus” because I feel it reveals layers of dimension of life and humanity within a simple scene set between a man and a woman. The poem is strikingly modern in style and tone; there is description, but it is not at all excessive, and the emphasis, or core of the poem, remains within the mind and the thoughts of the listening woman. This spare style accentuates the meaning beyond the obvious reality of it, and this approach affects me on both intellectual and emotional levels; the bare structure amplifies the emotional weight. Then, I relate to how the poem’s core meaning underscores a powerful difference between genders, and not to the favor of men, as this is a profound difference of perception I have often noted between the sexes. In “Asparagus,” I feel Margaret Atwood briefly and lyrically presents the reality of women as being innately attuned to the rhythms and processes of life and love, and the converse inability of men to comprehend these things.
To begin with, the simple elegance of “Asparagus” works to enhance the power of the verse, and consequently highlight the gender circumstances at its center. Atwood does not explain her setting; instead, she lets ordinary detail and action perform the job for her, and at the outset: “This afternoon a man leans over/ The hard rolls and the curled/ Butter” (ll 1-3). The effect is subtle and strong, as the butter’s being curled, as well as the time of day, indicate a luncheon in a restaurant. More fact is presented in the same, seemingly offhand way. The scene is outdoors but it is within a city, and the dining room is later affirmed as a courtyard. Reinforcing the scene in a natural way is the meal: both the shrimp and the coffee “arrive,” clearly indicating service.
I see this as a graceful way of creating setting with no unnecessary – or intrusive – overt statement. The sheer pragmatism of the style is then intellectually fascinating to me because it provides contrast to the emotional weight Moreover, it works in an equally subtle manner to reveal Atwood’s primary concern, and this is evident in a return to the opening lines. We do not yet know the narrator’s gender, but we know that the guest is a man, and there is a surprisingly stunning shift at this beginning. At this luncheon table, he exposes himself completely: “Two/ Women love him, he loves them,/ What/ Should he do?” Suddenly, as we understand that a woman is listening, gender roles are defied, and a man is revealing an emotional issue to a woman, seeking guidance. Consequently, the “facts” of the poem set the stage for its emotional impact.
That the narrator is female is also presented with great subtlety, amplifying the essential differences in gender even as, in the course of the narration, the man behaves in a stereotypically “female” way. At no point does that narrator refer to herself as a woman; it is only a comparison she mentally makes that reveals this: “This form of love is like the pain/ Of childbirth” (ll 29-30). At the same time, the man is consistently shown as both traditionally male – crumbs get in his beard – and strangely feminine in his confusion. He confides that he is at his wits’ end, seeing no way clear of this love confusion. “Masculine,” the narrator/woman listens and also lets her mind stray to other concerns, such as the sun’s effect on her skin: “I’m going to/ Suffer for this; turn red, get/ Blisters or else cancer” (ll 9-11). Even her appreciation of his problem leads to ancillary wondering, as in whether gray hair would enhance her advice to him, and I admire this interesting play on gender. Essentially, Atwood lays out a foundation of behavior and thought defying normal gender roles, and she does so to reinforce her core message.
That message for me is the reality of a woman’s far greater – and more realistic – willingness to accept pain and turmoil as natural parts of existence. More exactly, Atwood’s narrator knows nothing more than her male friend; she simply cannot comprehend any attempt to isolate answer or solutions in that which offers none, and this goes to thoughts I have often entertained. It may be that Atwood is deliberately reversing traditional gender roles here to provide an amusing subtext, or ironic counterpoint to her central idea. That is, a man is all confused about love and a woman is struggling to make him understand that there is nothing to be done. What matters far more, however, is that inherent knowledge within the woman, and this is powerfully revealed in the conclusion. She has no answers and there is no tracing of actual thought, but she nonetheless has one thing to say to him: “Listen, I say to him,/ You’re very lucky” (ll 45-46). This is a woman’s instinct, organically understanding what cannot ever be understood, and completely absent in a man.
There is little about Atwood’s “Asparagus” that I do not find elegant and powerful. Through understatement, she brings home to me a stark reality, served over shrimp and rolls, and she does it in plain language that has, nonetheless, a natural and pleasing cadence. Atwood also presents a play on traditional gender roles that is simultaneously surprising and as natural as her narrator’s chain of thought. All of it subtly affirms what may be the most important difference between men and women. For me, Margaret Atwood’s “Asparagus” briefly and beautifully presents the reality of women as being intrinsically attuned to the rhythms and processes of life and love, and also the inability of men to understand these things.
- Atwood, M. (1995). Morning in the Burned House. New York: Houghton Mifflin