Melanie Colvin Description of a Footnote to a Report An amnesty report is an inventory of crimes committed against humanity. Amnesty International has made reports in Ghana and several other countries where atrocities are committed. They then report back to the United Nations, who then decides if action is necessary. In the case of Margaret Atwood’s poem “Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture,” the amnesty report is delivered in a very different way. This poem is about, in short, someone’s perception of a torture chamber.
It is a less-than-glorified description of the room and the events that occur there. The speaker is really just a narrator; there is absolutely nothing to learn about him/her based on the text. But the narrator does seem to know the thoughts of a man, an employee at the institution that has this chamber. His job is to clean up the chamber where they conduct the torture. He has children, or had them at some point. This is proven by the last three lines of the seventh stanza, “his children/ with their unmarked skin and flawless eyes/ running to meet him. The man seems to be older, based on the graphic and jaded imagery. The institution seems to be political in nature, based on the fact that people are thrown onto “the Consul’s lawn,” and the mention of bureaucrats always being bored. Since it is the voice of one man working for the government, it is an interesting combination of the public and private view of life. Though the janitor’s opinion is the one we hear, it is his opinion of a public institution torturing people. The speaker’s opinion of the actual act of torture is surprisingly absent.
He mentions no cause or reason for the torture, so he does not deem the act necessary. The only opinion of the act the readers hear at all is that “The man who cleans the floors/ is glad it isn’t him. ” The imagery Atwood uses in this poem is very typical of what readers think of when hearing about torture. The gruesomeness of the language fits with the imagery created in readers’ minds. For example, when describing what he has to clean every day, the janitor describes “every morning the same vomit, / the same shed teeth, the same/ piss and liquid shit, the same panic. The surprising aspect of the speaker’s attitude comes from the lack of any passion for what he sees. He completely disassociates from what happens in the building that he cleans. He blatantly states this disassociation in the poem. The distance exhibited by the speaker is evidenced by the form the poem is written in. There are many hard pauses in the middle of lines. Without the line breaks, the poem would simply read as an extremely disturbing paragraph. Atwood’s use of enjambment is very clever in that the readers keep waiting for the man to be outraged, but he never is.
For example “the bodies of children/ burned to make their mothers talk. ” When Atwood enjambs the lines like this, readers are anxious for what they will hear next. Again, the gruesomeness is not surprising, but the passionless tone and lack of capitalization is shocking. Another example of this is the line “.. it doesn’t matter, who/ will ever know that they were brave, they might/ as well talk now/ and get it over. ” He just continues describing the atrocities he witnesses with impunity. The enjambment also adds to the idea that the readers are seeing what this man sees, and are inside his head.
Though this poem deals with an atrocity, Atwood still manages to make a connection to the art of poetry. By paying attention to how she phrases her words, and what she says, we see a truly terrifying insight into how people deal with the horror of torture. She uses poetic device to provide a dark portrayal of humanity. Works Cited: Margaret Atwood. “Footnote To The Amnesty Report On Torture. ” Vendler, Helen Hennessy. Poems, Poets, Poetry. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.