Dearly by Margaret Atwood review – the experience of a lifetime

Dedicated to her partner, Atwood’s first poetry collection in more than 10 years is wry and entertaining

Margaret Atwood does not do nostalgia. This collection of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the past that comes from a place of wisdom and control. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to assume a wry distance from her subjects – as if, in an astounding world, nothing could throw her off balance. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is part of what makes her an outstanding novelist. But poetry is different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, even though the collection is full of pleasures, reading her work makes one consider the extent to which poetry is not only about truth but about the importance of being, at times, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the “sanity of self-deception”.

The title poem is about words threatened with extinction.

It’s an old word, fading now:
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for:
I loved him dearly.

I was surprised she feels “dearly” and “sorrow” have fallen into disuse, although that “reft” is endangered (Sad Utensils) is uncontroversial. The words are paraded like missing persons. About actual missing people, she is more private. The book is dedicated to Atwood’s partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019, after a struggle with dementia. At the end of his life, he was like the vanishing word: “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 take on global subjects too. In Aflame she bleakly asserts that humanity is compelled by conflagration: “They end in flames/because that’s what we want…” And she does not flinch from a bald address about climate crisis in Oh Children:

Oh children, will you grow up in a world without birds?
Will there be crickets, where you are?
Will there be asters?
Clams, at a minimum.
Maybe not clams.

She cannot resist a joke. The slighter poems are the most successful. You can almost hear her speaking voice, see the twinkle in her eye. The wonderfully observed Ghost Cat is about an old cat who suffers from dementia “losing what might have been her mind”. The feral is never far off (there are wolves, werewolves and mushrooms bringing news from underground). And souvenirs abound. Her poem about the old passports we inexplicably save is particularly entertaining. She marvels (as many of us do) at the

…procession of wraiths’ photos

claiming to prove that I was me:
the faces greyish disks, the fisheyes
trapped in the noonhour flashflare

with the sullen jacklit stare
of a woman who’s just been arrested.

And she concludes that a woman is “cursed if she smiles or cries”. Her championing (and, sometimes, criticism) of women continues unabated. There is a playful fantasy (Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift) about Cassandra skipping doom to become 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 women wear. Silk is for shrouds, she writes, and ends:

It’s what you hope too, right?
That beyond death, there’s flight?
After the shrouding, up you’ll rise,
delicate wings and all. Oh honey,
it won’t be like that.
Not quite.

Undeceived as ever. Elsewhere, she quotes Rilke: “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.” She seems to wish she could 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.”

Dearly by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply


The pen reft of the hand,

the knife ditto.

The cello reft of the bow.

The word reft of the speaker

and vice versa.

The word reft:

who says that any more?

Yet it was honed, like all words,

in the mouths of hundreds, of thousands,

rolled like a soundstone over and over,

sharpened by the now dead

until it reached this form:



a cloth ripped asunder.

Asunder – minor sunset,

peach clouds faded to slate:

another loss.

And what to do with these binoculars,

sixty years old or more,

reft of their war?


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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