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:
While spirited and whimsical at another bend:
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.
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.