Margaret Atwood, Dearly (#BookReview)

Earlier this year, I decided to try audiobooks more regularly – and thought short stories would be a good way to go. Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities was my choice. It was, overall, a positive experience. Then I thought poetry might be worth trying given it’s such an aural form. I chose Margaret Atwood’s latest collection Dearly for my first foray into audio poetry since, although I’ve been an Atwood fan, I’ve only reviewed her once on my blog. Also, Atwood was a poet before she was a novelist. An added benefit was that the audio version was read by her. 

It worked really well – as a reading experience. For blogging, it was tricky. I found it difficult to capture the details I like to have for a review, much harder than remembering the plot, characters and themes of a novel experienced in audio form. Short stories fall somewhere in the middle. Anyhow, all this is to say that this post will share my overall thoughts, and a little about a few poems that I managed to jot down notes about or find online.

Overall, the collection came across as melancholic in tone, which is not to say the poems are uniformly grim, as there’s also plenty of Atwood’s cheeky humour. The worldview tends to the dystopian, reflecting Atwood’s concerns, but it felt realistic rather than hopeless. The subject matter is both political, dealing with issues like climate change and war, and personal, exploring ageing, grief and mortality. All of these speak to me.

Many of the poems draw on nature for their imagery, if not their subject matter. There’s a sense that nature is bearing the brunt of our wilfulness, that it shows evidence of our wilfulness, and, conversely, that it may also provide the answer. But, there are other poems which explore her themes through worlds I know nothing about, like zombies, aliens and werewolves.

And, of course, there’s Atwood’s love of language. The poems are accessible rather than obscure, but they’re not simple, because Atwood understands the weight of words and loves to play with them. This comes across really well in the audio version.

The collection is broken into five parts, starting, perhaps counter-intuitively, with “Late poems”. Many of the ideas here appealed to me, such as the idea in “Salt” that we don’t recognise the past was good until later. But, the poem that most touched me in this part was “Blizzard” in which Atwood talks about her nearly centenarian mother, asking “why can’t I let her go”? I could tell her why.

I enjoyed poems in Part 2, like “Health class (1953)” and “A genre painting”, but in Part 3, we find many poems inspired by nature. “September mushrooms” talks of fungi bringing “cryptic news of what goes on down there”. Halloween is the ostensible subject of “Carving the jacks”, which concludes with such a great line, “After we’re gone, the work of our knives survive us”. Atwood can do last lines.

In “Update on werewolves” (read it online), Atwood riffs on the masculine threat inherent in werewolves, then expands it to explore the empowerment of women. “Zombie” is prefaced by a lovely epigraph by Rilke, that “poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts”. In “The aliens arrive”, Atwood runs through various movie aliens and their actions:

We like the part where we get saved.
We like the part where we get destroyed.
Why do those feel so similar? 

I love these pointed, paradoxical lines.

“At the translation conference” toys with language and culture, and how different cultures have words (or don’t) for different things. Some languages have “no word for him her … have no future tense”. There’s a wry reference to women and the word “no”, and, more scarily, to translation as a dangerous activity where punishment can result if the translation is “wrong”.

Part 4 also contains many nature-inspired poems. It continues the concerns and questions about where we are going, particularly regarding the environment. Finding a “Feather” causes Atwood to think of the “calligraphy of wrecked wings” and of the feather’s owner being “a high flyer once as we all were”. (This is one of many references to birds, which are a particular passion of Atwood’s.) “Improvisation on a first line by Yeats” continues the exploration of our rapacious attitude to land, as does “Plasticine Suite” with its word play on ages – the Pleistocene, the Myocene, now the Plasticine, “evidence of our cleverness, our thoughtlessness”. It addresses the arrogance of proselytising developed nations disregarding the needs of the less rich. “Oh children” ends with “Oh children … will you grow up in a world without ice … will you grow up?”

The collection concludes on the personal, with Part 5 devoted to ageing and loss, largely inspired by the death of Atwood’s husband in 2019 from dementia. There are some really lovely meditations here. In “Sad utensils” she writes of “the word reft/ who says that anymore?” despite its being honed over years and used by many. As words pass, so do our own lives, and the people we love. In “Silver slippers” she reflects on ageing and the things we give up along the way, “no dancing anymore … all my wishes used up … where did you go and when/ it wasn’t to Kansas”.

The second last poem is the titular poem, and it speaks directly to her loss of her husband, starting with the loss of the word “dearly”:

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

Moving, and to the point – as is the final line of the book, from the poem “Blackberries”: “the best ones grow in shadow”. More paradox. I will leave my thoughts there and pass you over to Margaret Atwood herself in her essay for The Guardian on this collection. She says it all far more eloquently than I ever could.

Margaret Atwood
(Read by Margaret Atwood)
Bolinda Audio, 2020 (Orig. pub. 2020)
1hr 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781867504009

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

This is the second time I have read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Much as I enjoyed it the first time around, I probably wouldn’t have read it again if it hadn’t been scheduled for one of my online bookgroups. However, given that scheduling and the fact that I had recently listened to Simon Armitage’s dramatisation of The odyssey, I didn’t mind reading it again – and it is short! My rereading though ended up being a little disjointed as I was trying to finish off a number of competing contracts at the time as well as prepare for a ten-day trip to our warm Top End. This review may be similarly disjointed!

The book is part of Canongate’s Myths series in which recognised writers were asked to retell well-known myths. At the time of publication, Atwood said that she tried a number of myths and had nearly given up when she suddenly recollected the story of Penelope and her hanged maids – and her childhood reaction to it. The result is a rather fresh – and cheeky – look at the story told through Penelope’s and the hanged maids’ eyes, from, not surprisingly, a feminist (or at least female) perspective.

The story is told through a large number of short chapters in Penelope’s voice, and these are interspersed with commentary from the hanged maids, emulating, appropriately enough, the idea of a Greek chorus. The way Atwood uses it, the chorus provides a satiric perspective on Penelope’s view of the story. The story is told in flashback, with the narrators all speaking from Hades, where they now reside. It is not a standard revisionist feminist treatise that simplifies the world to one of gender power discrepancies (even though that is what underlies it all). We get to “feel” what it might have been like to have lived then. Atwood’s characters are “real” and operate in a complex world where game-playing and manipulation are de rigueur if you are going to survive.

In Homer, Penelope is presented as “the quintessential faithful wife” (Atwood’s introduction) who brings up their son and cleverly fends off suitors while waiting patiently for Odysseus’ return. When he returns, he kills the suitors and twelve of Penelope’s maids. Atwood, again in her introduction, says that in choosing to tell the story through Penelope and the maids she wanted to focus on “what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really doing?”. Her Penelope is something rather more than the constant wife of The odyssey. She, the part daughter of a watery Naiad, is a slippery character to pin down. She is highly jealous of her beautiful cousin Helen (she of Troy fame) and she is capable of making her own power plays. She is of high birth, contrasting her with the twelve maids who, by their own admission “were born to the wrong parents. Poor parents, slave parents, peasant parents, and serf parents…”.

What I enjoyed most about this book – besides the story Atwood tells – is its sly humour. It is genuinely funny, albeit in a dark or sometimes gruesome way. Much of the humour arises out of Penelope’s playing with the truth. In fact the book plays continually with the idea of “stories”. In the first chapter, Penelope says:

Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I’ve had to work myself up to it; it’s a low art, tale-telling … So, I’ll spin a little thread of my own.

A little further on in the book, she says, when reporting one of the prevailing stories about her, that “there’s some [my emphasis] truth to this story”. And so, as we read we need to remember that she too is telling us a story, and that there’s no guarantee that her story is any more “true” than another’s. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the maids comment on what Penelope tells us. Their and Penelope’s perspectives are not always the same. That is, their truths are different. This notion of stories versus stories is made even more clear in the chapter titled “Waiting” in which Penelope recites all the opposing stories and rumours about what Odysseus was doing/what was happening to him during the 10 years of his return. Reader beware, I say. In fact, at one point in the book where Penelope questions whether the “maids were making some of this up”, I wrote in the margin “Where is the truth”? I love the way Atwood plays with myth-making in a book about a myth – and, in doing so, also calls into question her own storytelling. Very postmodern!

I won’t go on. It’s a little uneven, with the maids’ story in particular being not quite as well integrated as it perhaps could. And yet, I’d recommend it, if you haven’t already read it. It’s clever, funny and compassionate – but its compassion is not a naive one. Rather, it has wide open eyes and knows that nothing is ever as simple as it looks – particularly when you find yourself in a situation where there is imbalance of power. Games will be played – and the powerless, such as women and particularly poor maids, will usually lose. And this, in the end, is Atwood’s (somewhat heavy-handed) point. As Penelope says in her last chapter:

Even with my limited access I can see that the world is just as dangerous as it was in my day, except that the misery and suffering are on a much wider scale. As for human nature, it’s as tawdry as ever.

Margaret Atwood
The Penelopiad
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920885953
NB: Cover image used above is from the new 2007 edition.