The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way around.
The first stanza describes a moment of satisfaction with what you might have achieved in life (after all that ‘hard work and a long voyage’), but the second and third stanzas turn this on its head, and, instead, it becomes a poem about letting go of what can’t belong to you and giving a voice back to the things we, as humans, tend to overlook, like the rustle of leaves, birdsong, the crumbling cliff: ‘No, they whisper. You own nothing.’
The poem teaches us to take time in moments of realization like this, rather than fearing them: note how the first two stanzas unfold as a single, long sentence, using enjambment – that’s the technical term for when one line continues into the next without stopping – to allow the thought to change shape.
To get a better sense of what the poem means (or means to you), try reading it outside somewhere like a park or a garden, and see how the many voices of your environment can live with and in-between Atwood’s words.