Dearly by Margaret Atwood & other poetry highlights of 2020

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By Rebecca Foster

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

In her career of more than five decades, Margaret Atwood has produced work in an astounding range of genres: literary fiction, children’s books, essays, graphic novels, science fiction, and more. But even dedicated fans might be unaware that she got her start in poetry, publishing five collections before her first novel appeared. This latest set of verse dates from 2008 to 2019 and was assembled from motley handwritten sheets Atwood found in a desk drawer. A lot of us probably have a drawer (or folder of digital files) containing scraps of writing, but likely nothing approaching this quality. Dearly is a treasure trove, twice the length of the average poetry collection and rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis, and bereavement. It is reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful.

Part I contrasts the lure and danger of nostalgia: “Don’t look behind, they say: / You’ll turn to salt. / Why not, though? Why not look? / Isn’t it glittery? / Isn’t it pretty, back there?” Her dying mother and a cat with dementia embody the loss of memory, while her old passports tell a cruel tale of decay: “Sequenced, these pics are like a chart // of moon phases fading to blackout … each time altered // to something a little more dead”. The opener, “Late Poems,” acknowledges that “It’s late, it’s very late; / too late for dancing. / Still, sing what you can.” Last stanzas and last lines pack a punch throughout the book, but especially in this first section.

Much of Part II is about the ownership of women’s bodies, a perennial Atwood theme as relevant as ever given the #MeToo movement and the enduring influence of The Handmaid’s Tale. “Songs for Murdered Sisters” is a literal song cycle written for baritone Joshua Hopkins in honour of his sister. It features the haunting repeated line “So many sisters lost”. Part III lightens the tone with the nine very funny potential plots of “The Aliens Arrive” and the desupernaturalization of werewolves and zombies in a poem each.

The book’s fourth section is the most explicitly environmentalist, picking up on earlier Thunberg-esque line “The world’s burning up.” Atwood moves from individual dead birds she finds on her lawn to a more universal picture of threat. “Plasticene Suite,” about the plastic artefacts of the Anthropocene, pinpoints the problem: “Go is easy, / Stop is the hard part. / In the beginning no one thinks about it. / Then Wait is too late.” A segment on the plight of whales gets a little overwrought, but the overall message is hard-hitting and undeniable: “Oh children, will you grow up in a world without ice? … // Oh children, will you grow up?”

In the final part, Atwood responds to the death of her partner of 40 years, Graeme Gibson. “Invisible Man,” though an elegy, is not maudlin in the least: “You’ll be here but not here, / a muscle memory, like hanging a hat / on a hook that’s not there any longer.”. She gives oblique snapshots of her life without him. The title poem is about the meanings of words, and the objects that hardly exist anymore, like Polaroid cameras and print newspapers. “Sorrow: that’s another word / you don’t hear much any more. / I sorrow dearly.” The book ends with a scene of blackberry picking, an example of continuity from her grandmother to herself to her own grandchild. Despite the sadness of ageing, some good things persist.

I can highly recommend Dearly, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, these poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, repetition, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers and make the book one to experience aloud as well as on paper. End rhymes are less common, but do turn up, especially in the humorous verse. I had to laugh at the metaphors of love as a circus tent and a coconut “like the round hard hairy breast / of some wooden sasquatch.” Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz. Her frame of reference is as wide as the array of fields she’s written in over the course of over half a century. Don’t miss the stand-out poetry collection of the year.

I’ve also chosen four 2020 poetry runners-up, with a short response and a representative quotation given for each:

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. A central section of translations of the middle-Irish legend “Buile Suibhne” is less memorable than the gorgeous portraits of flora and fauna. The whole is capped off with the moving words addressed to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you” and “In this world, I believe, / there is nothing lost, only translated”.

I came back often,
year on year, kneeling and being knelt for
in acts of secret worship, and now
each woodland smells quietly of sex

How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver

Like Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver is not as well known for her poetry, but this is her second collection of verse after the bilingual Another America/Otra America (1992). The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of travel poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four shorter remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. As in Dearly, the book gives equal consideration to personal and collective losses. Themes come through more strongly than poetic techniques, but Kingsolver builds momentum with her salient natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.

Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse
asleep in the shade of your future.
Pay at the window. You’ll be surprised: you
can pass off hope like a bad check. You still
have time, that’s the thing. To make it good.

Moving House by Theophilus Kwek

This is the Chinese Singaporean poet’s first collection to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic. Many poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. “Sophia” is made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes to his wife while surveying in Singapore. I also enjoyed touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. Alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, with a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes. Highly recommended to readers of Mary Jean Chan and Ocean Vuong.

every house has a skeleton –
while the body learns it must carry less
from place to place, a kind of tidiness
that builds, hardens. Some call it fear,
of change, or losing what we cannot keep.
Others, experience.

Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols

Nichols’s ninth collection is split, like her identity, between the Guyana where she grew up, and the England which she has made her home. She uses Creole and the imagery of ghosts to conjure up her coming of age in South America. Like the other poets I’ve featured here, she often draws on the natural world for her metaphors, and her style is characterised by alliteration and assonance. One section of unrhymed 14-line poems, illustrated with black-and-white photographs by Compton Davis, she calls “Back-homing (Georgetown Snapshot Sonnets).” She then brings her adopted country to life with poems on everything from tea and the Thames to the London Underground and the Grenfell Tower fire. A final set of elegies (including one to Derek Walcott) feels like a fittingly sombre close. (My full review will appear in Issue 106 of Wasafiri literary magazine.)

Our Demerara voices rising and falling,
growing more and more golden
like a canefield’s metamorphosis
from shoots into sugar,
the crystal memory shared with a river

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A freelance proofreader and book reviewer, Rebecca Foster writes for the TLS and Wasafiri, and blogs at Bookish Beck. She has never formally studied poetry but has an amateur’s love for it.

Margaret Atwood, Dearly: Poems(Chatto & Windus: London, 2020). 978-1784743895, 144 pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s

Seán Hewitt, Tongues of Fire (Jonathan Cape: London, 2020). 978-1787332263, 80 pp., paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s

Barbara Kingsolver, How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) (Faber & Faber: London, 2020). 978-0571359899, 120 pp.,hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s

Theophilus Kwek, Moving House (Carcanet Press: Manchester, 2020). 978-1784109639, 96 pp.,paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s

Grace Nichols, Passport to Here and There (Bloodaxe Books: Hexham, 2020). 978-1780375328, 77 pp., paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s