Birds feature frequently in this moving collection of poetry by the novelist Margaret Atwood, and bring with them foreboding...
Atwood’s first poetry collection in over a decade is intimate, lingering delicately between the human and the natural, and this world and the next.
Margaret Atwood does not do nostalgia. This collection of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the past that comes from a place of wisdom and control. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to assume a wry distance from her subjects – as if, in an astounding world, nothing could throw her off balance. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is part of what makes her an outstanding novelist. But poetry is different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, even though the collection is full of pleasures, reading her work makes one consider the extent to which poetry is not only about truth but about the importance of being, at times, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the “sanity of self-deception”.
In early Atwood the familiar was made strange; her landlady was “a raucous fact”; a swimmer’s solitary walk down a dock and into the water was a “short, desolate/ parade”. By contrast, the Atwood of 2020 prefers her imagery tried-and-tested, familiar, safe. A poem about violence by begins by telling us that “Anger is red/ The colour of spilled blood”. A poem about walking in on one’s lover in flagrante ends with the cheating couple “caught in the glare of your stare”. I’m not sure the old Atwood would have considered that line interesting enough to end a poem on. Many fans of Atwood’s novels will buy, and enjoy, Dearly. But if you’re looking for a first-rate “Poet of Contemporary Canada, 2010-2020”, try Karen Solie instead.
Atwood’s themes are sombre, in other words; perhaps as sombre as they come. Yet this whole collection stands as a mighty demonstration of how great poetry can embody and celebrate the sheer vibrancy and beauty of life, in the face of the most profound sorrow and terror. Read these poems aloud, read them carefully, read them with joy and tears; savour the raw power of their rhythms and assonances, and the sheer mastery with which Atwood, at the height of her powers, transforms anger and grief into glinting beauty and brilliance. And then ask yourself whether, if humanity survives, any future historian could ever find a richer, more courageous or more truthful account of what it was, and how it felt, to be alive in these times; and give yourself the answer – no, most truly, she could not.