Let me first say, it was real hard to find the full text online. It is a longer poem, so many versions online have cut whole verses. Originally, I was going to just post a link to the poem, but the only copy of the full text I found was annotated with questions to prompt middle and high school aged kids to think about the poem in a certain way. Not that it isn’t helpful, but I’m a believer that everyone should approach literature with a clean slate, before being influenced in a certain direction. Therefore, I’m posting a clean copy of the poem before I give you my thoughts. And yes I know the formatting is a bit off. Technology failed me today.
“Half-Hanged Mary” by Margaret Atwood
Rumour was loose in the air
hunting for some neck to land on.
I was milking the cow,
the barn door open to the sunset.
I didn’t feel the aimed word hit
and go in like a soft bullet.
I didn’t feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.
I was hanged for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;
Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.
The rope was an improvisation.
With time they’d have thought of axes.
Up I go like a windfall in reverse,
a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree.
Trussed hands, rag in my mouth,
a flag raised to salute the moon,
old bone‐faced goddess, old original,
who once took blood in return for food.
The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turned inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.
The bonnets come to stare,
the dark skirts also,
the upturned faces in between,
mouths closed so tight they’re lipless.
I can see down into their eyeholes
and nostrils. I can see their fear.
You were my friend, you too.
I cured your baby, Mrs.,
and flushed yours out of you,
Non‐wife, to save your life.
Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.
In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.
I understand. You can’t spare
anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl
against the cold,
a good word. Lord
knows there isn’t much
to go around. You need it all.
Well God, now that I’m up here
with maybe some time to kill
away from the daily
fingerwork, legwork, work
at the hen level,
we can continue our quarrel,
the one about free will.
Is it my choice that I’m dangling
like a turkey’s wattles from this
more than indifferent tree?
If Nature is Your alphabet,
what letter is this rope?
Does my twisting body spell out Grace?
I hurt, therefore I am.
Faith, Charity, and Hope
are three dead angels
falling like meteors or
burning owls across
the profound blank sky of Your face.
My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I’m reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair
Death sits on my shoulder like a crow
waiting for my squeezed beet
of a heart to burst
so he can eat my eyes
or like a judge
muttering about sluts and punishment
and licking his lips
or like a dark angel
insidious in his glossy feathers
whispering to me to be easy
on myself. To breathe out finally.
Trust me, he says, caressing
me. Why suffer?
A temptation, to sink down
into these definitions.
To become a martyr in reverse,
or food, or trash.
To give up my own words for myself,
my own refusals.
To give up knowing.
To give up pain.
To let go.
Out of my mouth is coming, at some
distance from me, a thin gnawing sound
which you could confuse with prayer except that
praying is not constrained.
Or is it, Lord?
Maybe it’s more like being strangled
than I once thought. Maybe it’s
a gasp for air, prayer.
Did those men at Pentecost
want flames to shoot out of their heads?
Did they ask to be tossed
on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry,
As mine are, as mine are.
There is only one prayer; it is not
the knees in the clean nightgown
on the hooked rug
I want this, I want that.
Oh far beyond.
Call it Please. Call it Mercy.
Call it Not yet, not yet,
as Heaven threatens to explode
inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.
Wind seethes in the leaves around
me the tree exude night
birds night birds yell inside
my ears like stabbed hearts my heart
stutters in my fluttering cloth
body I dangle with strength
going out of me the wind seethes
in my body tattering
the words I clench
my fists hold No
talisman or silver disc my lungs
flail as if drowning I call
on you as witness I did
no crime I was born I have borne I
bear I will be born this is
a crime I will not
acknowledge leaves and wind
hold onto me
I will not give in
Sun comes up, huge and blaring,
no longer a simile for God.
Wrong address. I’ve been out there.
Time is relative, let me tell you
I have lived a millennium.
I would like to say my hair turned white
overnight, but it didn’t.
Instead it was my heart:
bleached out like meat in water.
Also, I’m about three inches taller.
This is what happens when you drift in space
listening to the gospel
of the red‐hot stars.
Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain,
a revelation of deafness.
At the end of my rope
I testify to silence.
Don’t say I’m not grateful.
Most will have only one death.
I will have two.
When they came to harvest my corpse
(open your mouth, close your eyes)
cut my body from the rope,
I was still alive.
Tough luck, folks,
I know the law:
you can’t execute me twice
for the same thing. How nice.
I fell to the clover, breathed it in,
and bared my teeth at them
in a filthy grin.
You can imagine how that went over.
Now I only need to look
out at them through my sky‐blue eyes.
They see their own ill will
staring them in the forehead
and turn tail
Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one.
My body of skin waxes and wanes
around my true body,
a tender nimbus.
I skitter over the paths and fields
mumbling to myself like crazy,
mouth full of juicy adjectives
and purple berries.
The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes
to get out of my way.
My first death orbits my head,
an ambiguous nimbus,
medallion of my ordeal.
No one crosses that circle.
Having been hanged for something
I never said,
I can now say anything I can say.
Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers,
I eat flowers and dung,
two forms of the same thing, I eat mice
and give thanks, blasphemies
gleam and burst in my wake
like lovely bubbles.
I speak in tongues,
my audience is owls.
My audience is God,
because who the hell else could understand me?
Who else has been dead twice?
The words boil out of me,
coil after coil of sinuous possibility.
The cosmos unravels from my mouth,
all fullness, all vacancy.
Alright, so… This poem has it all. So it seems to be in freeverse, because there isn’t exactly a rhyme scheme (that doesn’t mean it is completely free from rhyme, just no glaring pattern). There isn’t really a set meter, though parts of it seem to have a bit of a rhythm. Atwood tends to stick to certain sound patterns for parts of the poem, specifically in the 3am section. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
First I wanted to go through some of the themes that stuck out to me. First and most obviously, and most relevant to The Handmaid’s Tale, is the feminism. Mary, the narrator, tells us that she was arrested for the way she looks, for having a feminine figure and boobs. This is probably less a suggestion that colonists were just rounding up any woman they see, and instead is a nod to the rhetoric used against women accused of witchcraft. Often these women were labeled succubi, or female demon seducers.
I love the shade she throws at the men who are tying her up. She implies they weren’t smart enough to just execute her immediately, and instead left her to die. People came to look at her hanging there, but also are we surprised? These are the same people that went and watched the revolutionaries on the battlefield with their picnic baskets. The women who came to look are all indebted to her in one way or another. She says, “I cured your baby, Mrs./ and flushed yours out of you,/ non-wife, to save your life” (9pm). I think this is a clear allusion to abortion, specifically termination of the fetus to save the life of the unwed mother. This could mean something was wrong with the baby and was hurting the mother, OR it could be a suggestion that if anyone were to find out, the men who hung Mary could try to hang her too. Regardless, this behavior, curing babies and aborting others would have been grounds for execution anyway–further proof Mary’s a witch.
The section 10pm is beautiful and tragic. She begins to question her faith. In the following section, temptation to give into death is everywhere. She feels it around her as her body begins to give out on her.
The 3 am section… I noticed several things about this section. First, some of the sound patterns (seethes and leaves) sounds a bit like wind, and hanging there alone all night would definitely make you notice things like the way the wind sounds around you. The repetition of birds and hearts reminds me a bit of birds chirping, perhaps other sounds Mary is noticing during the night. She is repetitive here, talking in circles, a bit like a person swinging from a rope. She’s fighting temptation.
As the sun rises with the 6am and 8am sections, the poem begins to get a bit more hopeful. She is starting to sound like a survive, rather than a victim. The snark we saw at the beginning of the poem, with her criticism of the men who hung her returns. She notes that few people get to experience death twice, and she will. As we stated in our background episode, she doesn’t experience this second death for many more years.
At the end of this poem, she seems to be gloating a bit. She’s happy this happened, because now she is safe. There is a bit of double jeopardy here… She knows she can’t be hung for the same crime twice. She is free. She feels
Overall, I really loved this poem. It took a few read throughs before I picked up on the complexity of this poem. At surface level, it seems child-like, an easy poem to understand. However, as with any poem, the details are in the layers.