Margaret Atwood doesn’t do nostalgia. This assortment of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the previous that comes from a place of knowledge and management. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to imagine a wry distance from her topics – as if, in an astounding world, nothing might throw her off stability. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is a component of what makes her an excellent novelist. But poetry is completely different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, regardless that the assortment is full of pleasures, studying her work makes one take into account the extent to which poetry is just not solely about reality however about the significance of being, at instances, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the “sanity of self-deception”.
The title poem is about phrases threatened with extinction.
It’s an outdated phrase, fading now:
Dearly did I want.
Dearly did I lengthy for:
I liked him dearly.
I used to be shocked she feels “dearly” and “sorrow” have fallen into disuse, though that “reft” is endangered (Sad Utensils) is uncontroversial. The phrases are paraded like lacking individuals. About precise lacking individuals, she is extra non-public. The e-book is devoted to Atwood’s companion, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019, after a wrestle with dementia. At the finish of his life, he was like the vanishing phrase: “fading now, I miss you”. Other poems are about him, too. In Invisible Man – a spare, withheld poem – his presence is bravely envisaged as absence, “like hanging a hat/on a hook that’s not there any longer”.
Her poems tackle international topics too. In Aflame she bleakly asserts that humanity is compelled by conflagration: “They end in flames/because that’s what we want…” And she doesn’t flinch from a bald deal with about local weather disaster in Oh Children:
Oh kids, will you develop up in a world with out birds?
Will there be crickets, the place you’re?
Will there be asters?
Clams, at a minimal.
Maybe not clams.
She can not resist a joke. The slighter poems are the most profitable. You can virtually hear her talking voice, see the twinkle in her eye. The splendidly noticed Ghost Cat is about an outdated cat who suffers from dementia “losing what might have been her mind”. The feral isn’t far off (there are wolves, werewolves and mushrooms bringing information from underground). And souvenirs abound. Her poem about the outdated passports we inexplicably save is especially entertaining. She marvels (as many of us do) at the
…procession of wraiths’ pictures
claiming to show that I used to be me:
the faces greyish disks, the fisheyes
trapped in the noonhour flashflare
with the sullen jacklit stare
of a lady who’s simply been arrested.
And she concludes that a lady is “cursed if she smiles or cries”. Her championing (and, typically, criticism) of girls continues unabated. There is a playful fantasy (Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift) about Cassandra skipping doom to turn out to be an uneventful matron with a “dark-blue leather purse”. And in Princess Clothing, she writes with militant impatience about the false weight given to what girls put on. Silk is for shrouds, she writes, and ends:
It’s what you hope too, proper?
That past loss of life, there’s flight?
After the shrouding, up you’ll rise,
delicate wings and all. Oh honey,
it received’t be like that.
Undeceived as ever. Elsewhere, she quotes Rilke: “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.” She appears to want she might rise above recollection and comically likens the arrival of a poem (in Zombie) to an inconvenient revenant: “The hand on your shoulder. The almost-hand:/Poetry, coming to claim you.”
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The pen reft of the hand,
the knife ditto.
The cello reft of the bow.
The phrase reft of the speaker
and vice versa.
The phrase reft:
who says that any extra?
Yet it was honed, like all phrases,
in the mouths of lots of, of 1000’s,
rolled like a soundstone again and again,
sharpened by the now useless
till it reached this type:
a fabric ripped asunder.
Asunder – minor sundown,
peach clouds light to slate:
one other loss.
And what to do with these binoculars,
sixty years outdated or extra,
reft of their struggle?