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Dear Margaret: On Atwood's birthday, looking back at Dearly

Sayantan Ghosh
Sayantan GhoshNov 18, 2022 | 18:00

Dear Margaret: On Atwood's birthday, looking back at Dearly

The Handmaid's Tale writer Margaret Atwood is also an occasional poet (photo-DailyO)

The great Margaret Atwood turns 83 today (November 18). Her fiction and essays have been read, reread, torn through, turned into hugely successful television shows and consumed by millions around the world for years. So, to celebrate her on this occasion, let’s instead turn towards the quieter, more solemn and yet deliciously satisfying side of her, her poetry. To be a little more specific, her most recent collection of poems dedicated to her late partner and published in 2020 – Dearly.

Atwood is one of the most essential feminist voices in the world, doubly significant in the post-#MeToo era and demands to be read by all and sundry. This anthology too delves into some dark territories – “Princess Clothing” is a personal favourite that simmers and rages, shames and screams when speaking truth to power. It’s sombre and full of hurt at one turn: 

"When you stumble across your lover and your friend, naked in or on your bed, there are things that might be said. Goodbye is not one of them."

While spirited and whimsical at another bend:

“Everyone else’s sex life seems so impossible. Surely not, we think: surely not this into that! Not such a dirty mouth, and such bad teeth!”

The destruction of the natural world is a running theme throughout Dearly, remarking on the disintegration of our earth with Atwood’s trademark touch of irony. So is grief and a deep sense of longing – this was the first book she published after the loss of her long-time partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019. Even though she doesn’t address his death directly in this collection, the profound impact of this tragedy on her heart and mind can be felt in all its pages.

Book cover of Dearly (photo-Amazon)
Book cover of Dearly (photo-Amazon)

Dearly is not going to be considered one of her best works at the end of her long career, of that I’m certain. But it’ll be remembered for being a home to some of her most personal writings. When the poems shine, they glisten – just read “Update on Werewolves” once and then read it out aloud again to yourself, then read it out to people you’ve just met at a party – you’ll know what I mean. Its biggest flaw for the critics perhaps is its unevenness, but aren’t all things of beauty uneven too? “If there were no emptiness, there would be no life.” – is how one of her poems begin. Atwood’s words are often able to fill that hollow space inside us, and Dearly is no exception.

Last updated: November 18, 2022 | 18:00
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