“Manet’s Olympia” by Margaret Atwood

“Manet’s Olympia”

She reclines, more or less.
Try that posture, it’s hardly languor.
Her right arm sharp angles.
With her left she conceals her ambush.
Shoes but not stockings,
how sinister. The flower
behind her ear is naturally
not real, of a piece
with the sofa’s drapery.
The windows (if any) are shut.
This is indoor sin.
Above the head of the (clothed) maid
is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

But. Consider the body,
unfragile, defiant, the pale nipples
staring you right in the bull’s-eye.
Consider also the black ribbon
around the neck. What’s under it?
A fine red threadline, where the head
was taken off and glued back on.
The body’s on offer,
but the neck’s as far as it goes.
This is no morsel.
Put clothes on her and you’d have a schoolteacher,
the kind with the brittle whiphand.

There’s someone else in this room.
You, Monsieur Voyeur.
As for that object of yours
she’s seen those before, and better.

I, the head, am the only subject
of this picture.
You, Sir, are furniture.
Get stuffed.

8 thoughts on ““Manet’s Olympia” by Margaret Atwood”

  1. Just my opinion here. Margaret Atwood’s poem “Manet’s Olympia” stinks on ice. What a collection of drivel.


  2. John Callahan, I make it a policy not to delete comments, but yours tempts me. If you think the poem is “drivel” fine, but why not say *why* it “stinks on ice”? Is there a rationale for your opinion? You obviously feel like your opinion deserves airing, and you took the time to comment, yet you have nothing to say. I don’t mind negative or challenging comments, but uncritical aesthetic dismissal is pointless. Next time you wish to deride something, take the time to say why your opinion matters–otherwise it’s not likely people will value what you have to say.


  3. I Strongly disagree with Mr Callahan. I concede that this poem is perhaps overly feminist for some tastes. Many of Atwood’s poems can be too forward and agressively feminist (even a feminist like me can’t agree with all her works.) But Manet’s Olympia incorporates a wide range of postmodern techniques whilst creating a very poignant image how women have been positioned in the past.

    The use of direct address at the end is rather clever, breaking the paradigms of art and audience. Atwood gives the silent character, the maid, a voice, and a strong voice at that, subverting social orders and power structures. I love how she objectifies the voyeur as he objectifies the woman’s body. This poem is resonant and very clever, conversing and criticising the painting with a postmodern twist. I find it incredibly intriguing, so much so, I am choosing to study it as a related text for my postmodernism course.


  4. I think it is a good poem, and very funny. The model for Olympia was painted often by Manet, and always has that same attitude of sizing up the viewer who is right there in the picture with her, and who is in this case her customer.


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