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The Arthur Literary Review: Atwood’s Poetic Justice

Written by
Dante Pettapiece
and
and
November 24, 2020
The Arthur Literary Review: Atwood’s Poetic Justice
Photo courtesy of Mauro Rico, via Wikimedia Commons

Before now, it had been more than a decade since Margaret Atwood last released a collection of poetry. This is frustrating for those Atwood devotees — I among them — who get far more excited about her poetry than her prose. That is to say, I am a big fan. Atwood seems to be one of the better-known Canadian authors internationally, with recent spikes in popularity likely due to the wild success and unfortunate relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu adaptation. Much like a Stephen King or a Lydia Davis —type author, Atwood is a storytelling machine, a kind of artistic assembly line, with her full bibliography virtually heaving out of her books at this point, resembling an enthusiastically literary centerfold, detailing an impressive half-century of rule breaking and tale weaving. Her work can be inconsistent at times; yet, I don’t believe Atwood’s creative genius can ever be overstated. Although her novels seem to receive the widest acclaim, I find that the smaller the space that Atwood has to work within, the more the reader will benefit. Her short stories, such as “Death by Landscape” and “Happy Endings,” are unparalleled treats to wrap one’s head around, while her poetry consistently tops the charts in both deftness and beauty. Her ’81 poetry collection, True Stories, contains some sincerely heartrending lines; in particular, the poem “Variation on the Word Sleep” demonstrates the care Atwood takes in the construction of one of her poems. Lines can be repeated, carefully, with only a comma’s difference, yet will result in entirely new meanings for words you thought you knew, with images and emotions being evoked that you imagined having some unwavering understanding of. You will be proven wrong.

I am happy to say that Atwood’s newest collection, Dearly, has been well worth the wait, revealing a poet who is solidly at the top of her game. The collection does not take kindly to being put down. Atwood’s poetry has always exhibited deep roots in mythology and in folklore, as well as a broad understanding of human history. The same is true this time around. Every poem contained in the book feels like it should be whispered, confided carefully in whoever is sitting closest to you. The poem titled “The Aliens Arrive” is a reminder that we have never been without folktales worth whispering; how, even in this age of social media, we are consuming the same wonderfully chilling campfire stories at a steady rate. We just happen to overlook the packaging they’re presented in now, perhaps forgetting (as the seventh stanza references a Canadian-directed 2016 alien invasion flick, “Arrival”) that we, as humans, have never been able to resist a good ghost story, some horrifically instructive moral tale. Atwood suggests that we have a great deal to learn from these kinds of stories, even now.

A stanza from the poem 'Blizzard' by Margaret Atwood. Image courtesy of Dante Pettapiece.

Such a spooky intersection between myth and reality — those grisly recontextualizations of long-gone though ever-present boogeymen beside all that is familiar to our humdrum lives — has never been wanting in Atwood’s writing. Sometimes these themes are presented in a pulpier fashion. However, in and amongst any apparent playfulness, there is always a glint of the uncanny, some subterranean tone of despair. That, too, is present here, perhaps even more so than usual. The older Atwood gets, the more eagerly she seems to reveal some bitterness, pessimism, and even disappointment. This collection is divided into five Roman-numeralled partitions, each poem filed away according to subject matter. While only IV seems explicitly dedicated to climate change, the theme of humanity’s impending extinction echoes throughout, with Atwood often reminding the reader (and humanity at large) that our extinction is our choice, and it’s rather sad (if historically inevitable) how little we seem to be doing to stop it. We, as humans, seem to love tragic narratives, maybe a little too much. My favourite poem in the collection, “September Mushrooms,” is perhaps the best example of existential dread and tragedy leaching into a narrative that doesn’t immediately present itself as being about our species’ death. Yet, even when rhyming about picking autumnal fungi, there it is. 

I will not spoil more. I will, instead, skip to encouraging everyone to pick up a copy for themselves. Margaret Atwood’s verse will be the source of all your most unexpected chills — will be the cause of any and all uncontrollable shakes that your body can produce. All that, and it’s just so beautiful. 

Dearly is available now, both in print and in audio format as read by Atwood herself.


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