[Note: This review was submitted as part of a graduate poetry workshop fall 2022 at Middle Tennessee State University.]
I HAVE LONG FELT that feeding on the genius of the language is one of the best, if not only ways to cultivate the ear. Though to feed on Shakespeare is not to attempt to become Shakespeare, to sound like Shakespeare or in any way out-Shakespeare Shakespeare because Shakespeare alone is Shakespeare, but rather as a means of "hearing" one’s self, or perhaps "overhearing," arousing and exercising one’s inner Hamlet, inner Rosalind or Ganymede. Whether or not the word genius is out of fashion, Margaret Atwood (author of Handmaid's Tale) has it and does not hide behind it. There is nothing timid in this work. The integrity of style she exercises as a novelist becomes conspicuous in her poems—her genius for description, her impeccable word choice, the excruciating detail that goes into every inch of text, the logic of her movement, the geometries with which she shapes her language, and the almost mystic wordplay that enchants the work, not to mention the particular sheen each poem possesses, and all without any excess weight to encumber it.
I found it best to read Dearly in short blocks of time. These poems are not quick reads. Cuisine like this is best served slowly, and still warm, with adequate and occasional pause (for the palate). Don't mean to gush, but that was my experience. You enter into her space and all the poetic qualities and conditions that space will ask. I felt no hesitation in surrendering to this work, that is, trusting the author.
. . . The poem
washes ashore like flotsam.
Or late, as in late for supper:
all the words cold or eaten.
. . . thrice-gnawed songs.
Rusted spells. Worn choruses
The first poem, Late Poems, like much of her work in this collection, is charmed with melancholy (as in pensive, reflective, full of thought, weight without the heaviness). Late Poems certainly has the precise language to do that tone justice. Many of the poems are meditations and reflections of age and aging. Having read Stanley Kunitz’s Touch Me, a poem he wrote when he was 90, Late Poems has the same tone, the same haunted reminiscence. The Kunitz poem starts, “Summer is late my heart. / Words plucked out of the air some forty years ago . . .” I only mention the Kunitz poem because the collection it came from, Passing Through (W. W. Norton, 1995), was released five years before his death in 2000. He was 100 when he died. Passing Through and Dearly share that reminiscent quality. Released in 2020 when Atwood was 80, Dearly is written with those same advantages, the same perception, that is, age.
Still, sing what you can.
Turn up the light: sing on,
Having lost my mother just shy of her ninetieth birthday, Blizzard took me back six years. The circumstances were different, of course, but I relived that time through Atwood’s poem, by a ping of recognition, a stab of memory, demonstrating what Keats wrote, that a poem “should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” The language itself becomes familiar to our ear, if in a remote and yet attractive way.
The clock ticks and the day shrivels.
Dusk sifts down on us.
How long should I stay?
This collection also laughs. It flirts. It certainly informs, if in an oblique kind of way. The retake or reconsideration of the allegorical Tin Woodsman, who decides it better to be without a heart. If There Were No Emptiness appealed to me as a writer. I learned long ago the value of cerebral vacancy in writing a book or a poem, that time away from it when you want to think of anything but the work, or, much better, to think of nothing at all. When you return, there has been an alteration in your perception of the piece whatever it is. Problems most often make themselves conspicuous. This is not what the poem is about, but it is “the unheard story / ready for me to unlock” that is the reward at the end of vacancy.
The integrity of style she exercises as a novelist becomes conspicuous in her poems—her genius for description, her impeccable word choice, the excruciating detail that goes into every inch of text, the logic of her movement, the geometries with which she shapes her language, and the almost mystic wordplay that enchants the work, not to mention the particular sheen each poem possesses, and all without any excess weight to encumber it.
Though I can’t relate to certain elements of Health Class, it was fun in its way, fun and prophetic—“am now a cold grey moon / waiting in your future.” Double-Entry Slug Sex taught me the lamentable word "apophallation," that I regrettably Googled. Ouch. Look it up. That poem is followed by Everyone Else’s Sex Life, “Oh Yes, In Love, / that demented rose-red circus tent” that challenged conventional thought toward sex, those images that may dominate culture but mislead, even in love.
So tempting, that midway faux-marble arch,
both funfair and classical—
so Greek, so Barnum,
such a beacon,
with a sign in gas-blue neon:
Love! This way! In!
I consider the poems in Dearly sage poems, that is, written with the wisdom of age, farseeing both in what was, what is, and what is to come, the kind of wisdom, particularly in Margaret Atwood's case, that comes with years of writing, of thinking like a writer, like an artist, like a prospector, a poet, the obsession, the rigor, and the discovery that comes with the craft itself. One last note, Dearly, the poem, my favorite (or I should say the one that had the deepest reach in me—"I sorrow dearly” it ends), the banner of the entire work, is written in a minor key, the mode that charms the entire collection.
How to keep track of the days?
Each one shining, each one alone,
each one then gone.
I’ve kept some of them in a drawer on paper,
those days, fading now.