by Margaret Atwood
(Chatto & Windus, $34)
Loss seeps into everything. It soaks the heart and infuses the mind. It bleeds into memory and oozes into the everyday. For writers, as solitary as we
are, and as much as we might try to fortify ourselves against the distractions, pains and foibles that percolate beyond our closed study doors, we can't escape our injuries, our bereavements nor our frailties.
How, for instance, do we writers endure the passing of our loved ones? How do we get through the protracted, biting legacies of such losses: their emptiness? We write, of course.
With the death of her partner of 46 years, the prize-winning Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson, esteemed author Margaret Atwood composed her latest poetry collection, Dearly. It's a beautiful, poignant refrain to the grief she clearly still feels at the departure of her beloved.
"Poetry," she writes in the introduction to the new book, "deals with the core of human existence: life, death, renewal, change as well as fairness and unfairness, injustice and sometimes justice. The world in all its variety. The weather. Time. Sadness. Joy. And birds."
How true. Most readers, of course, will know Atwood from her novels: the contemporary classics The Handmaid's Tale and its impeccable follow-up The Testaments, for example. Few will know her for her verse. Yet, as Dearly illustrates, the time has come to redress this unjust imbalance. After all, this book is the author's 16th collection. In a career which spans six decades of publishing, the gamut of literary output and the global glitz of book awards, Atwood has written collections which continue to stand among the finest of her oeuvre.
Perhaps this is because, as her quote above attests, there's something about the author's style, particularly her skillful use of language, punctuation and precision which lends itself perfectly to the poetic. Certainly such graceful ease of storytelling and deep lyrical dexterity is everywhere evident in Dearly.
Take a standout poem like Fear of Birds. Across its concise 21 lines, Atwood packs so much in. There's the narrative, as suggested by its title, of a man plagued by ornithophobia. There's also the descriptions, the birds rendered with a prose which evokes flight and animation as much as appearance. Then there's the backdrop, a place alive in its lilting imagery: "a dripping sound in the dry forest". All threaded with rich sub-texts interlacing ascent, angels, divination and death.
In fact, by her own admission, birds flock far and wide in Dearly. From work as diverse as the revision of The Wizard of Oz, Silver Slippers to the epic environmental sequence, Plasticine Suite, captivation with and concern for our winged creatures flits and swoops across its pages.
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When reading Dearly, is it necessary to know that the much-missed Gibson was one of Canada's foremost ornithologists? No. The pleasure of these poems lies in their consistent ability to immerse readers in the magical power of story, the kind which moves us with important messages, distinctive viewpoints, stunning language, symphonic rhythms and a beguiling feathered cast.
Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey