Midweek Miscellany: Margaret (Atwood, that is) and Me

Although a few of my Atwood books are still packed, this is most of my surviving Atwood stash (to my intense regret, I discarded several works during my great book purge last winter). Although I kept mostly novels, I do still have a book or two of poetry, a collection of Atwood’s non-fiction pieces and a somewhat dated literary study of her work.

If you spend any time at all in the bookish area of the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your attention that November was Margaret Atwood reading month (#MARM). Although sheer disorganization prevented me from participating (I’m afraid I’m still much like my nine-year old self, who once showed up two days late to her little friend’s birthday party), Atwood is one of my very, very favorite writers and I did in some way want to demonstrate how much her work has meant to me. I can’t claim that I was a fan from the beginning of her career (I can be a bit slow about these things), as I only began reading her work with Life Before Man, which came after Atwood had published several other novels and a great deal of very highly regarded poetry. I also can’t say I was a die-hard Atwood fan from my first read. I liked the novel but . . . wasn’t it a bit too realistic in spots? Did I really like these characters? Wasn’t the tone just a bit too ironic at times? Reader, what can I say? I was very, very young at the time, salad days so to speak, blood like ice water and judgment as green as a head of lettuce. Even laboring under the weight of these disadvantages, however, I was drawn from the beginning to Atwood’s writing without quite having the savvy to understand why; although I had some reservations about my first Atwood novel, its characters lingered in my mind and I remembered certain scenes and phrases long after I finished reading. Without being fanatical about it, I began catching up on Atwood’s backlist and reading her new work pretty quickly after it came out. An added bonus in this respect was discovering a writer who actually published with such pleasing regularity, so there were many wonderful new things to read. (I adore Donna Tartt but . . . only one novel every decade or so? So very frustrating at times.)

And then, after several years of an every increasing appreciation of Atwood’s work, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I previously wrote about the experience and won’t repeat myself (click here if you’re interested); suffice it to say that I became the equivalent of a sports fan who dresses in her team’s jersey and shows up at games wearing a silly hat and chanting the star player’s name (imagine, if you can, my standing outside a small independent bookstore, chanting “Atwood! Atwood! rah, rah, rah!”) I had grown up on the fringes of an intensely fundamentalist and traditional culture; did time (and that’s exactly how it felt) in an almost exclusively male environment and was making my living working in another when Handmaid was published. I found Atwood’s ability to recognize certain trends that I had experienced at first hand, and to extrapolate those trends to their logical conclusion intensely real and very, very frightening. I went from a warm appreciation of Atwood’s work to rabid fandom, so to speak. On a chilly October evening a few years after my conversion, I took a great deal of trouble to be one of the lucky attendees who heard Atwood read from Cat’s Eye, her then-most-recent novel. Afterwards I and a couple of hundred other enthusiasts stood more or less patiently in line to have Atwood sign a copy of her work (since most of us were reading an Atwood novel while we waited, the patience part wasn’t too difficult). To grasp the personal significance of my attendance and participation at this event, dear reader, please understand that my actions on that oh-so-long ago October directly contravened principles that have guided my life, i.e., always avoid crowds, never stand in line and never, ever attend literary events on cold nights.

So — it’s fair to say that I love Atwood’s fiction and was delighted to learn of November’s Atwood event. I intended to honor the occasion by re-reading one of the early novels but became sidetracked when I started leafing through Dearly, published in the U.S. on November 10 and Atwood’s first book of poetry in almost a decade.

The latest addition to my Margaret Atwood stash . . . do you think the identifier (“Author of The Handmaid’s Tale”) could possibly be an advertising gimmick intended to draw in viewers of the hit cable series? Regardless, this is a beautiful book in every sense, with a great deal of content in its 120 odd pages

My taste in poetry was formed by the anthologies and collections that are the staple of the undergraduate English courses taught in U.S. universities, which is to say I prefer poems written before 1920, in rhyme and with meanings that are easy to grasp (one notable exception to my criteria is the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins, although I do love his “Spring and Fall”). I have also read very little of Atwood’s poetry, particularly her early work (whose originality and emotional impact are considered superior by at least one critic) nor did I read Dearly with any great intensity, always so necessary with me to fully grasp this very difficult art. So please keep my limitations in mind and don’t hesitate to add your own opinions, comments and corrections to my own remarks.

Although I like most of the Dearly poems very much, do I sink myself beyond redemption, dear reader when I say that I think Atwood’s primarily talent is for her wonderful novels? What I love about Atwood is her wit, her intellect, her sharp observation of the world and its inhabitants, and her uncanny ability to make connections between people and ideas. This makes for interesting, and at times very pleasurable, poetry but it doesn’t quite deliver the emotional impact I look for in the very greatest of poems. In its review of Dearly, the Guardian called Atwood “an undeceived” poet and delicately suggests that a poet, at times, must indulge in a little merciful illusion. I’ve thought about this statement a great deal and while I don’t pretend to fully understand the Guardian’s oracular pronouncement, I sort of get what I think the reviewer meant. Dearly’s poems didn’t give me a transcendent or profound emotional experience (as I had, for example, the first time I read Philip Larkin’s “The Mower”) or cause me to lose myself in their sheer overwhelming gorgeousness of language and imagery (I’m thinking here of a seventeen year old me, reading Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”). Rather, they were perfect examples of that “undeceived” quality mentioned in the Guardian’s review. I’m going to digress a bit here by quoting some favorite lines from “February,” a poem in a previous Atwood collection (Morning In The Burned House), which I think perfectly conveys this aspect of her poetry:

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black-fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched: if I am
he’ll think of something else. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas
purring like a washboard.

Speaking from my own experience, these lines were written by a woman who understands with perfect and unsentimental clarity both the demands of the season and the nature of her feline companion.

Don’t tell Janakay, dear readers, but she doesn’t understand us at all . . .

Dearly itself, as I said in my caption, is literally a beautiful book, with wonderfully heavy, cream-colored pages that have a marvelous tactile quality. Beware, however, if you have any choice in your editions, which I discovered have different cover art and may differ in some other respects as well. My HarperCollins edition published in the U.S. features a spray of flowers that look like poppies done in muted blues and grey-greens, while the U.K.’s Chatto and Windus edition uses the work of noted British artist Kate MccGwire as the basis of its design, in which the author’s name and the work’s title are nestled among a great, swirling mass of blue and grey bird feathers. Although the cover art of the U.S. edition does give a nod to Atwood’s intense interest in the natural world, I’d go for the Chatto and Windus edition if you have any choice; the feather theme ties in far more directly to the poems (many mention or deal with birds), subtly suggests the uplifting nature of the poems and IMO at least is more visually appealing. Additionally, although Amazon’s U.K. website makes this difficult for me to determine with certainty, the fore pages of the U.K. edition appear to contain facsimiles of Atwood’s handwritten notes.

I took this image of the U.K. edition from the Amazon U.K. website; it’s quite a contrast to the more subdued cover art of my U.S. edition isn’t it?

This stuff about cover art and feathers (not to mention your cats) is all very well, you might say, but what about the contents? Atwood is eighty-one years old and many of the poems, unsurprisingly, reflect the experience of a long life and the passing of time. Atwood dedicates the work to “Graeme, in absentia,” her companion of over forty years who died shortly before the collection was published. Although the work as a whole doesn’t appear to have a common theme, it does contain certain broad subjects that are grouped into five untitled sections. The first begins with the very beautiful “Late Poems,” which introduces the general idea of loss and absence. Like “a letter sent by a sailor, that arrives after he’s drowned,” late poems “wash ashore like flotsam” after “the battle, the sunny day, the moonlit slipping into lust, the farewell kiss” have happened. In Atwood’s view, all poems are “late poems.” The second section deals mainly with various aspects of gender (my current favorite here is “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift,” in which the doomed prophetess says “no” to “Mr. Musician God”). I particularly enjoyed the third section, which deals with what I can only call “strange creatures;” Atwood’s wit and irony are on full display in poems dealing with, among other things, zombies, aliens, sirens and werewolves. After this come poems about nature (including birds, whales, the arctic and wolves) and the frequently nasty things that happen there. The last section contains the poems about Graeme’s fading away (in his last years he was battling dementia) and death.

My current favorite poem from the entire collection (“Blackberries” is a close second) is “Feather:”

One by handfuls the feathers fell.
Windsheer, sun bleach, owlwar,
some killer with a shotgun,

who can tell?
But I found them here on the quasi-lawn–
I don’t know whose torn skin–

calligraphy of wrecked wings,
remains of a god that melted
too near the moon.

A high flyer once,
as we all were.
Every life is a failure

at the last hour,
the hour of dried blood.
But nothing, we like to think,

is wasted, so I picked up one plume from the slaughter
sharpened and split the quill,
hunted for ink,

and drew this poem
with you, dead bird.
With your spent flight,

with your fading panic,
with your eye spiraling down,
with your night.

I’ve gone on many nature walks and have seen these little piles of feathers and bones fairly often; I can’t say that my reactions went much deeper than a passing regret or sadness that soon disappeared. It takes a poet to imagine, and then transform, the panic and exhaustion of that slaughtered creature into the life and beauty of a poem.

Before I end this rather rambling post, a few additional things are worth noting. First is the presence of Atwood’s characteristic wit and sense of humor. While many of the poems are somber, many of the others are very, very funny (I defy anyone to read “Aliens” without a smile). On a more logistical level, the collection contains two poem cycles, “Plasticene Suite,” which deals with the environment and what we’ve done to it, and “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” written for the baritone Joshua Hopkins, whose own sister was murdered (music for this was composed by Jake Heggie). Lastly, and in contrast with my own choices, the collection’s most popular piece appears to be the title poem “Dearly.” The Guardian published a wonderful interview with Atwood, which contains a link to Atwood herself reading the poem; if you’re interested, it’s available here.

Because this posting is a “Miscellany,” I had initially thought I’d include some other, unrelated topics. I became so interested in Dearly, however, things got out a little out of hand and I’m afraid I’ve exceeded my own attention span, not to mention yours as well! So, perhaps a “Monday Miscellany”? Hmmmmmm . . . .

15 thoughts on “Midweek Miscellany: Margaret (Atwood, that is) and Me

  1. Atwood’s writing is very special, and like you I particularly love her novels. I haven’t really explored her poetry before, but just bought a beautiful, signed edition of Dearly. Which I am hoping to dip in and out of over the next couple of weeks.

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  2. Her novels really are wonderful, aren’t they? Like you, I’ve been slow to explore Atwood’s poetry; it takes me so long to really internalize a poem I tend to stick to the old stuff. Perhaps I’m now at that point in life where I’m ready to slow down and think more (I’m an optmistic!) and Atwood’s poems certainly give you much to think about.
    I’m most envious of your signed “Dearly!” Since you’re in the U.K. it’s probably the one with the beautiful feathers on the cover; if so, does it have an introduction by Atwood and the handwritten facsimile of her notes?

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  3. I have to say that I do think the UK cover is stunning. I too have a signed copy (and I’ve read a little of her poetry and loved it) – but I haven’t decided if this is one I’ll keep for myself or gift to my middle child who also loves Atwood!

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  4. The Canadian edition of Dearly is different again – the one with the birds: http://margaretatwood.ca/dearly/
    I think I like the UK version the best!

    Like you, I like Atwood’s work more and more as the years go by. And her clever wit is my favourite thing about her. I’m happy to hear some of the poems showcase it – I’m looking forward to reading it!

    It was fun coming across your post after the fact – like a forgotten Christmas present under the tree… 🙂

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    1. Naomi: thanks for the head’s-up regarding the Canadian edition, which is very nice indeed. I agree, however, that he UK version wins the prize! It’s not only visually stunning, but it ties in so perfectly with Dearly’s contents, which much cover art so spectacularly fails to do. That being said, the Canadian edition is not that far behind. As for the cover art of the U.S. edition, well . . . I’m afraid it looks like the type of generic cover you’d stick on any poetry book. Make me wonder whether Atwood’s U.S. publisher actually read any of the poems!
      Atwood is so very witty, isn’t she? (make sure you read “Aliens”) Atwood has many great qualities, but I think it’s the wit, along with her affinity to the natural world, that draws me the most.
      And many thanks for the kind words about the post! I loved all the wonderful reviews I read during #MARM 20. If something similar occurs next year, maybe I’ll actually be on time for the party!

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  5. I think a copy would be a fabulous gift, regardless of whether or not it’s signed! The poems are everything one expects from Atwood (a very high bar!): witty; intellectually and emotionally twisty and amazingly insightful into the connections among things, both human and non– . And the cover art is absolutely perfect for the contents. I was quite happy with my HarperCollins edition until I saw that amazing cover on the U.K. edition . . . . .

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  6. You have such a beautiful collection of Atwood’s books!! I read only few of them, but I do plan to read (hopefully) all of them 🙂 It fascinates me how different her books are. For example, the books I read: Hag-Seed versus The Heart Goes Last versus The Handmaid’s Tale & The Testaments … different themes, different styles, one Atwood 🙂

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  7. Georgiana: thanks so much for your kind words! You’re spot-on about Atwood, I think; her versatility is very real and a very big part of her attraction for me. She’s such an intelligent and observant writer that the versatility just seems to be a natural result. I’m probably mangling this, but I think Henry James once admonished someone or other to try to be one of those people upon whom “nothing is lost.” This really applies to Atwood — she looks at her culture in a very broad way and, somehow, it all ends up in her work, which as you note contains some very different books.
    What a wonderrful project, to read all of Atwood’s novels! I’m saving Testaments until I have a chance to re-read Handmaid’s. I also haven’t read Hag-Seed or the Penelopiad; additionally it’s been so long since I read the early novels that re-reading would be a completely different experience at this point. And then there’s the wonderful poetry, the non-fiction and critical work . . . . Aren’t we lucky that she’s so prolific?

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  8. Thannk you for the kind words! Although I prefer her novels, I do love Atwood’s poetry very much and, better still, I have yet so much of it to explore. I also want to read more of Atwood’s critical work (I believe she has a lot to say about being a Canadian writer) and — The Testaments, which I look forward to very much.

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  9. I read Cat’s Eye decades ago and disliked it so much I’ve never read Atwood since (shame on me, since I’m Canadian!) but I do want to read The Handmaid’s Tale as I’ve heard it’s excellent. One day.

    P.S. A nine-year-old self can be very interesting and impetuous and fun. And rambling can be a good thing too. I rather like it! 😉

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  10. Cleo: so nice you stopped by. No shame, I’m afraid, on not liking Atwood’s work! Although I liked Cat’s Eye very much when I read it (so very many years ago), it’s a cruel book in many ways. I’ve been meaning for some time now to re-read it, to see how I’d react to it now; some of the episodes involving those teenage girls were quite sickening. I might add that one of my good friends from that period also hated the novel.
    As I indicated in my review, Handmaid was the book that really got me (along with so many other people) hooked on Atwood. I want to re-read it before going on to Testaments but must admit I’m a little afraid to; so many of its images and ideas have entered the culture that it couldn’t possibly affect me as strongly as it did the first time.
    So interesting that you’re Canadian! I’d love to travel and see more of Canada (I’ve been to the Maritime provinces and some time ago also did a birding trip to Manitoba, mostly centered on Churchill/Hudson Bay. No polar bears, alas, as I was there in the summer but what fascinating scenery (and I did see beluga whales). One of my projects is to learn more about Canadian literature. I guess I could start by reading Atwood’s Survival: A Tematic Guide to Canadian Literature, but that’s far too organized for little old rambling me (I have the attention span these days of one of my cats). Any recommendations? I tried Carol Shields years ago, but didn’t get very far. Does Patrick DeWitt count as a Canadian writer?

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  11. Happy New Year JanaKay. 😀

    I was an instant Atwood fan when I read The Handmaid’s Tale sometime in the late ‘80s. I can’t say I’ve loved every book since, in particular I thought The Testaments was unnecessary; if not a money grab, an ego massager. But you know, I couldn’t write anything half as good as her worst novel, I will admit freely. I did re-read (like you plan to) The Handmaid’s Tale as prep for The Testaments and found it totally holds up, however. If anything it is more chilling today than when I was young and optimistic. I am curious to know what you think of The Testaments. I did find it entertaining at least.

    I would like to someday do a little project and read all her novels in publication order. I think I read all her early stuff but have no memory of it other than Cat’s Eye and The Edible Woman (and that is vague at best). So a comprehensive review is in order anyway.

    Alas, I will never be an Atwood completionist since poetry leaves me cold…no plot LOL. But thank you so much for the review of Dearly which allows me to vicariously enjoy it after a fashion.

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  12. Ruthiella: I’ve been catching up with your blog and leaving comments like mad; I’m finally getting to this! I forgot to say, in my comment to your Classics Challenge round-up, that I, too, considered but decided against a final mad push to catch up with the Challenge in its closing weeks. As you said, we aren’t being graded! In my case, however, I wasn’t nearly as far along as you and I would have merely been attempting to review six novels! I think I also forgot to mention that I am also in awe of the fact that you finished Magic Mountain, in its original German, no less. I loved the novel when I read it (English translation, of course) but even translated it was a pretty tough climb to get to the top, so to speak.
    I am very relieved to hear that Handmaid has stood the test of time for you. I’ve actually been a bit afraid to re-read it, as it made such an impression on me the first time around. For a similar reason, I’ve been slow to tackle Testaments. I believe on a previous exchange of remarks we had a similar reaction when Testaments was published, i.e., Handmaid’s ambiguous ending was fine and why tamper with a masterpiece?
    Oddly enough I’ve also thought of an Atwood project in which I read all the novels in sequence. Although I’ve technically read the earlier ones, in depressing actuality I remember almost nothing of the details, major and minor. For some reason, Life Before Man is calling my name (I’m fascinated by the psychological aspects of relationship triangles) so I might at least squeeze that one in this year.
    As I’ve said ad nauseam in my blog, I have an uneasy relationship with poetry, especially modern poetry, most of which seems to me to be writtern in an esoteric code. I also no longer have the concentration, patience or sensitivity to do much with most of it. Atwood, however, IS relatively easy in some respects; I tend to focus on her wit and intelligence; I love irony and she can be very funny in her poetry no less than her novels. It also helps that she writes about nature and likes birds!
    I’m glad you liked the review. It was pretty hard for me to write, along with everything else last year. Hopefully I’ll be posting more in 2021!

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  13. Your picture has a lovely sci-fi quality that is very appealing.

    Wonderful recap of your life so intrinsically tied to Atwood’s work. I now have the poems but I still need to read the Assassin novel that I know I will enjoy.

    And Ruthiella, I need to stop at your blog too.

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