Dearly: Poems by Margaret Atwood was a book I savoured slowly over the Christmas/New Year period. I tucked the lovely slim volume into my work backpack to read one or two before work over my morning coffee, or to take with me to lunch. I would read a few more each time, sometimes rereading lines, or whole poems, underlining many stanzas that spoke to me, sitting with many more to let them sink in.
This was a collection written proudly by an older woman. A woman who has lived a full life and experienced loss and grief and who is prepared to embrace it all. Her poems are full of lived experience. They are rich with memory, history and reflection. But they are not nostalgic or sentimental. Atwood is not one of those older writers viewing the passing world with rose-coloured glasses or idealising an earlier time. She sees things as they are; unless she doesn’t want to, that is. She is upfront about both.
I confess that I found the poems with political themes less engaging than the more personal ones. In poetry, I look for connection and heart, not polemic. It was the personal poems that also enjoyed more of Atwood’s trademark use of language and wit.
Most of the poems were written by Atwood between 2008 and 2019. In her introduction she acknowledges that ‘during those eleven years, things got darker in the world. Also, I grew older.’ Her poems deal with the weather, birds and nature, ageing, justice, injustice, truth telling, feminism, a surprise visit by zombies, and of course, grief and loss. The final poems that refer to the death of her beloved husband, Graeme, are quietly, painfully, inevitably heart-breaking.
I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite lines:
Dearly beloved, gathered here together
in this closed drawer,
fading now, I miss you.
I miss the missing, those who left earlier.
I miss even those who are still here.
I miss you all dearly.
Dearly do I sorrow for you…
…I sorrow dearly.
I held your hand and maybe | you held mine | as the stone or universe close in |around you. | Though not me. I’m still outside.
The shape of an absence | in your place at the table | sitting across from me.
The world we think we see | is only our best guess.
It’s you in the future,
we both know that.
You’ll be here but not here,
a muscle memory, like hanging a hat
on a hook that’s not there any longer.
The aliens arrive | We like the part where we get saved. | We like the part where we get destroyed. | why do those feel so similar? | Either way, it’s an end. | No more just being alive. | No more pretend.
On a chill November night | with the rain whispering sushi | sushi, and the tongueless | mouth mumbling your name.
Airbrushed short-term memories.
We had to know | how such tales really end: | and why | They end in flames | because that’s what we want: | we want them to.
We’re hooked on the same old gods | much diminished. | They no longer talk to us | but that’s okay: | we do enough talking.
What will happen is already happening.
Lions don’t know they are lions.
They don’t know how brave they are.
Don’t think this is morbid.
It’s just reality.
The body, once your accomplice,
is now your trap.