Almost-Silly West Setting, Nation, and Space in Atwood's "Backdrop Addresses Cowboy"

The Old West, or the Wild West, has become one of the most prominent landscapes of America nostalgia in the modern world. Margaret Atwood, a poet whose distaste for American expansionism is evident in her writing, uses this backdrop to explore notions of location regarding the relationship between self and other. We can look at the idea of location, and topography in general, in Margaret Atwood’s “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” in three ways: as setting, as nation, and as space.

SETTING

The setting of this poem is especially poignant because it is an actual set. The fact that Atwood presents the “almost-silly West” as a stage set functions on multiple levels. Firstly, it points to the construction of the narrative, as it is revealed to be a figment of the speaker’s mind by the end of the poem. Furthermore, it points to the construction of the poem as a whole in a metafictional manner. Because the reader knows the narrative is mentally constructed by the speaker, the fact that Atwood presents the speaker’s mental landscape as a stage set implies that it is meant to be watched; the speaker is putting on a performance of some kind, which is exactly what happens each time the reader consumes the poem. Also, the stage set makes physical the unrealistic and romanticized discourse surrounding the Old West. The Old West epitomizes a nostalgic and romanticized version of American adventure and the American dream. When the speaker tells the cowboy “I am the horizon / you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso,” Atwood is deconstructing the idea of “riding off into the sunset.” The horizon here is intangible and unreachable, and, above all, attaining it accomplishes nothing. By making her Old West setting artificially manufactured, Atwood points to the fact that our romanticized ideals of the Old West are also artificially contrived.

NATION

We can also view location in “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” through the framework of nationalistic discourse. Even though national identity is somewhat lacking in Canadian poetry, we must view Canadian poets and poems as distinctly Canadian.

Topography in "Backdrop Addresses Cowboy" exposes the nationalistic rift between American and Canadian identity.

As such, the American imagery in Atwood’s poem, both in the form of the “starspangled” cowboy and the idea of the “Old West" in general, becomes especially poignant. We can view the physical separation between Canada and America as macrocosmically reflected in the tension between the speaker’s mental state and her perception of self. The “border” the cowboy is trying to cross speaks to national borders, but also to the border between mental and physical experience. Similarly, the cowboy “invading” the speaker’s mental landscape is made physical through the idea of invasion between countries. As such, Atwood’s distinctly American setting presents the cowboy as a figure who not only threatens the speaker’s personal identity, but her cultural identity as well.

SPACE

However, this national perspective of setting becomes complicated when we view the location of the poem as part of the speaker’s mental landscape. The last two stanzas categorize the speaker not as a subject that occupies space, but as an area of space herself.

The speaker describing herself as a location rather than an individual lends itself to the nationalistic reading of this poem. Just like, as readers, we extrapolate a single subject into an entire nation, Atwood expands the individual subject into an entire space. However, we must be acutely aware that this space that the cowboy is occupying is the speaker’s own mind. In this sense, the artificial stage set that makes up the poem’s setting seems to suggest an insincere, constructed, or false sense of self. Ultimately, Atwood's contrived yet organic setting speaks to the divide between nations, self and other and, finally, oneself and one's self.

-D.

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