Hi, friends! Thanks for joining me today; I’m so glad you’re here 💙. Today I’m sharing my review of Margaret Atwood’s 2020 poetry book: Dearly. Despite containing several gorgeous poems, the anthology as a whole is overshadowed by the handful of pieces with questionable implications. Still, Atwood’s inspiration radiates in the breadth of work featured in the collection. From selections on feminism and climate change to poems clearly written in the wake of personal tragedy, Dearly is distinctly and unmistakably Margaret Atwood. And its high points serve as a brilliant reminder of why she is considered one of the greatest writers alive today.
Grab a snack or something to sip on, and let’s dive in!
Support a local bookstore (and this blog!) by purchasing Dearly on Bookshop.org.
I read dearly for Prompt #42 of my 2021 Reading Challenge. You can see everything I read for that year’s challenge ･ﾟ✧here✧ﾟ･.
These are the late poems.
Most poems are late, of course: too late, like a letter sent by a sailor that arrives after he’s drowned.— Margaret Atwood: “Late Poems”
Margaret Atwood: Novelist, Feminist(?), and Poet
The lady of the hour is an author that likely needs no introduction. Dearly is just the latest release in Margaret Atwood’s decades-long career that includes eighteen novels, eighteen poetry collections, eleven works of non-fiction, and more. Today, she is probably most well-known for writing the modern feminist classic and recent smash-hit television series, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood might dispute my use of “feminist” to describe her novel. Still, her issue with the label seems to be based more on semantics than personal beliefs. (For example, she frequently cites the co-opting of the term by TERFs as one reason she hesitates to describe herself as such.) Regardless, it is nearly impossible to ignore the themes of patriarchy, sexual politics, and gender roles that permeate her works, and Dearly is no exception. Sorry, Maggie, but I think you’re a feminist.
Another aspect of Atwood’s identity that comes through in the collection is her relationship with her partner of nearly fifty years, Graeme Gibson. The couple shared the Joint Honorary Presidency of the Rare Bird Society (a conservation charity). Environmentalism, animal rights, and climate change are common themes in Atwood’s work. Dearly, again, follows this pattern. Unfortunately, Gibson passed away in 2019. Atwood was clearly still processing her loss as she compiled this anthology; aging, death, and grief are frequent flyers here.
While not every poem in Dearly may have been a home run for me, this was clearly a labor of love for Margaret Atwood.
We don’t have minds as such these days, but tiny snarls of firefly neural pathways signaling no/yes/no; suspended in a greyish cloud inside a round bone bowl.
Yes: lovely. No: too lonely. Yes.
The world we see is only our best guess.— Margaret Atwood: “Walking in the Madman’s Wood”
Recurring Themes in the Poems of Dearly
As I alluded to in the introduction (and as you probably surmised by my star rating), Dearly proved to be a pretty uneven reading experience for me. Some of the poems in this collection absolutely floored me. Some of them made me a little angry. Others simply left me wondering what the heck Maggie was on about.
Any anthology is bound to have its ups and downs, and Dearly is definitely not immune to this common ailment. Regardless of how turbulent my experience was from one poem to the next, Atwood (and her editor, to some extent) did a fantastic job compiling the poems into neat sections.
Of the five sections in Dearly, there was only one part that, to my eye, had no discernible theme. Still, the lack of apparent cohesion among the poems in Part Three didn’t hurt my overall enjoyment of the collection. At least, it didn’t do any more damage than it already had (or would).
The individual poems in Dearly might have been quite disparate. Nevertheless, I applaud the effort to connect what otherwise would have been a very chaotic anthology.
Dearly, Part One: Aging and Death
In Part One of Dearly, Margaret Atwood explores the themes of aging and death. These themes bookend the collection, with Part Five adding related meditations on loss and grief. The recurrence of these motifs is not unexpected, given the freshness of Atwood’s own tragedy.
“Ghost Cat” is the second poem in the anthology. It is told from the perspective of a human who fears what they will become — and what they will put their loved ones through — as their memory and personality deteriorate with age. They explain the kind of treatment they want in a way that says, “Hear me now while I am sane; and don’t forget what I said when I am not myself, and I try to take these wishes back.” It is tragic and heartbreaking. And, as anyone who has known someone who suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s can tell you — it’s also painfully honest.
Let me in, enclose me, tell me who I was.— Margaret Atwood: “Ghost Cat”
You can read “Ghost Cat” on Margaret Atwood’s Wattpad page.
Dearly, Part Two: Sex(uality) and Gender
In Part Two of Dearly, Atwood explores the themes of sex (the action) and gender (the identity). As I mentioned in the intro, she may not like the “feminist” label, but there’s no denying these themes frequently appear in her work.
This section features the poem “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift.” According to Greek Mythology, Apollo gifted Cassandra true sight but cursed her never to be believed. Here, Cassandra fantasizes about turning down the Sun God’s offer of the Sight in exchange for sex. She considers living an anonymous life, doing nothing of import. Indeed, she thinks, that would be a better fate than being renowned only for trading sex for the Sight.
What if I didn’t want all that — what he prophesied I could do; while coming to no good and making my name forever? …
What if I said No Thank You to Mr. Musician God, to sex for favors? What if I stayed right here? Right in my narrowing hometown (which will later be burned down), thinking of others first; and being manless and pitiable?
Then I could cry about failure…— Margaret Atwood: “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift”
Dearly, Part Three: The Random Poems
Part Three of Dearly is probably the most random assortment of poems in the collection, as far as I could tell. There are poems about alien invasions, mythological sirens, seemingly-immortal spiders, and poetry zombies.
In the poem “Aflame,” Atwood criticizes humanity’s obsession with technological advancements that come at the expense of our planet. “Carving the Jacks” uses the biodegradation of jack-o-lanterns as a metaphor for the fleeting, temporary nature of the human species.
In “September Mushrooms,” the speaker wonders what messages plants and fungi might send each other about the destruction humans are causing on Earth’s surface.
I missed them again this year. I was immersed elsewhere when the weather broke and enough rain came.
In the tree shade, stealthily, they nosed up through the sandy loam and the damp leaf litter… Some were bright red, some purple, some brown, some white, some lemon yellow.
Through the night they nudged, unfurling like moist fans, living sponges, like radar dishes, listening.
What did they hear in our human world of so-called light and air?
What word did they send back down before they withered? Was it Beware?— Margaret Atwood: “September Mushrooms”
Dearly, Part Four: Nature and Climate Change
While some of the poems in Part Three could fit under this umbrella, Part Four of Dearly is singularly concerned with nature and climate change. It contains the most poems of any part in the anthology: thirteen. One such poem is the nine-part “Plasticene Suite,” a collection of vignettes observing the ways plastic has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our planet.
As you might have gathered from the intro, bird conservation is a significant concern for Margaret Atwood. So much so that many of the poems in Part Four are specifically about birds. These include “Feather,” “Fatal Light Awareness,” “Fear of Birds,” and one section of “Plasticene Suite,” dubbed “Midway Island Albatross.” Folks, Part Four alone is over 30% bird poems!
“Feather” is probably my favorite of the bird poems. Here, the speaker discovers a smattering of feathers on their front lawn. Determined that they shall not have been shed in vain, the speaker collects them for use as quills.
One by handfuls, the feathers fell. Wind shear, sun bleach, owl war, some killer with a shotgun, who can tell? […]
But nothing, we like to think, is wasted, so I pick up on plume from the slaughter, sharpened and split the quill, hunted for ink, and drew this poem, with you, dead bird.— Margaret Atwood: “Feather”
Dearly, Part Five: Aging and Death (again); Loss and Grief
Margaret Atwood returns to the themes of aging and death in the final section of Dearly. Part Five also adds the related motifs of loss and grief to its meditations. In the poem “Sad Utensils,” she asks: do sacred objects lose their significance once their user is gone? The question is left open-ended; neither the poem nor the author provides an answer.
The titular and penultimate poem, “Dearly,” is quite heavy. The speaker talks about the word dearly, which has faded out of the modern vernacular. Similarly, a person important to the speaker begins to fade from memory.
It’s an old word, fading now. Dearly did I wish. Dearly did I long for. I loved him dearly…
How was it used? Dearly beloved, dearly beloved we are gathered. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here; in this forgotten photo album I came across recently…
Dearly beloved, gathered here together, in this closed drawer, fading now, I miss you.
I miss the missing, those who left earlier. I miss even those who are still here, I miss you all dearly.
Dearly do I sorrow for you.
Sorrow. That’s another word you don’t hear much anymore.
I sorrow dearly.— Margaret Atwood “Dearly”
It isn’t hard to draw the connection between this poem and Atwood’s own loss. In fact, I would say it’s impossible to ignore that this poem is most likely about Graeme.
We’re about to dive into my criticisms and, although I’m only discussing three specific poems, I had some #thoughts. Consider this a friendly reminder to restock and refill on your snacks and drinks of choice. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
[insert Jeopardy theme music here]
Okay, now that you’re back, let’s jump back in!
The Worst Poems in Dearly
Okay, maybe calling these the worst of the bunch is a bit harsh. “Most confusing” may be a better description. There were a not-insignificant amount of poems in Dearly that simply didn’t resonate with me. And that’s okay. I firmly believe that poetry is one art form that can have a different impact on you each time you return to a piece. So maybe it just wasn’t the right time for some of these poems to hit me.
However, the pieces I’m about to discuss are not those kinds of poems. When I say confusing, I mean contradictory. I mean that there was a wide range of implications in these poems. On one end of the spectrum, you have this contradicts everything I know about Margaret Atwood; on the other end: holy heck, Maggie, that feels incredibly problematic. And, let me assure you, I do not say that lightly.
“Princess Clothing” appears in Part Two of Dearly. Here, Atwood attempts to critique the inconsistent and arbitrary social norms governing femininity. This falls neatly into Part Two’s theme of gender and sexuality. It’s definitely a worthy concept for critique and not one entirely unexpected from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Unfortunately, Atwood falls flat in her attempts at criticism. In one section, she hand-waves at the consequences women have suffered for not adhering to the rules regulating their appearance. We may think these laws irrational, but that does not mean the fallout of those laws is equally unimportant.
Oh, beware, uncover your hair, or else they will burn down your castle.
Wait a minute: Cover it!
Hair. So controversial.— Margaret Atwood: “Princess Clothing”
Reducing the seachange of laws that have (among other things) resulted in thousands of deaths over decades of conflict to a silly tiff about the controversiality of hair is, frankly: not it.
In another section of the poem, Atwood raises a legitimate question about society’s perception of body hair, only to immediately follow up with an inflammatory reference to traditional Indigenous headgear. She claims the use of bird feathers in headdresses “once… nearly stripped [the world] of feathers,” which is, first of all, false. Secondly, as Marissa Lee points out in her review for SettingMind, this comment “feels highly insensitive at best, and racially charged at worst.”
Historic obsession with femininity is, as I said, a worthy topic for critique. However, equating literal mutilation with societal pressure to shave one’s armpits is incredibly unbalanced.
If you cannot critique a worldview without regurgitating other equally harmful sentiments, maybe you should do some soul-searching before airing your complaints.
Update on Werewolves
The poem “Update on Werewolves” appears in Part Three of Dearly and, just as Part Three itself was a mixed bag, so, too, is this poem a mixed bag. Here, Atwood uses werewolves in the same way many authors use werewolves: as a metaphor. A metaphor for what, though, I couldn’t tell you.
“Update on Werewolves” starts to become problematic for me in its comparison of male werewolves’ behavior to that of female werewolves. Both are described as violent, rapacious killers-by-night. Both are described as something to be feared. Given that, I was left with some questions about what, exactly, Atwood was trying to imply in her poem.
Immediately after reading “Update on Werewolves,” I had a few interpretations. None of them were particularly favorable.
Interpretation #1: Violence vs. Liberation
It’s no literary secret that werewolves are often used as allegories for various sexual “deviances.” It is no different here. Atwood likens the violent sexual proclivities of her male werewolves to flirting and hair-pulling gone too far; “those things frat boys do.”
[Male werewolves] went too far with the pigtail-yanking —
growled down into the soft and wriggling females,
who cried Wee Wee Wee all the way to the bone.— Margaret Atwood: “Update on Werewolves”
In trying to process what this poem might be trying to say, I turned to the internet. One reviewer suggests the poem is meant to depict how “werewolves have shifted from figures built on a masculine threat to femininity to figures that represent empowerment for women.”
I don’t dislike this interpretation; I honestly wish I had that same feeling when I read the poem. Unfortunately, I just don’t think that jives with the part of the poem where the werewolves growl down protesting females. I also don’t think it meshes with the pattern of use of werewolves as metaphors for sexual deviance.
If Atwood intended the poem to refer to nonviolent sexual liberation, then why the violent undertones regarding her male werewolves? When she writes about the so-called recent phenomenon of female werewolves, she describes lycanthropy as being “no longer gender-specific. Now it’s a global threat.” Why use the word “threat” if not to imply danger? She also later uses the word “revenge” to describe the activities of her female werewolves. Again, revenge suggests something more sinister than innocent liberation.
Interpretation #2: Sexual Predators in Jimmy Choos
Atwood doesn’t stop after referring to werewolves as a “global threat” now that lycanthropy isn’t exclusive to men. She then describes the latest iteration of these predators as long-legged, hairy women who leave a trail of blood in their wake.
These women may be perfectly respectable by day, sitting in sales meetings, absent-mindedly fiddling with their manicures. They’re merely biding their time until they can sprout their tails and rip out the throats of anonymous businessmen.
Long-legged women sprint through ravines in furry warmups… Bent on no-penalties revenge.
Hairy all over, this belle dame, and it’s not a sweater…
Tomorrow they’ll be back in their middle-management black and Jimmy Choos, with hours they can’t account for.— Margaret Atwood: “Update on Werewolves”
In contrasting these female werewolves’ modest, corporate life by day with their murderous alter-egos, Atwood implies a deceitful, deceptive quality in the women of her poem. The double-life metaphor and the “hairy all over [but] it’s not a sweater” description reminded me of the “trans women are just men playing dress-up” variety of transphobia.
Reading this collection shortly after Atwood shared an op-ed titled “Why Can’t We Say ‘Woman’ Anymore?” didn’t do any favors in dissuading me of this interpretation.
But hey, maybe that’s just me. You can read “Update on Werewolves” on LiteraryHub. I would genuinely love to know what you think.
At the Translation Conference
The last poem I want to cite in my reasoning for why this collection was a confusing experience is “At the Translation Conference,” which appears in Part Three of Dearly. Here, Atwood explores how language barriers can influence human relations. Throughout the poem, concepts such as gendered terminology, verb tenses, and consent are examined — though not always delicately.
This was a particularly frustrating poem for me because it provides glimpses of some classic Margaret Atwood motifs while ending with a confounding conclusion.
Atwood winks at us with sly nods to the absurdity of gendered clothing. She gives us a subtle elbow to the ribs when insinuating that some people are incapable of hearing the word no. It is such a quintessentially Margaret Atwood piece… until it’s not.
The speaker of the poem is, as the title suggests, attending a translation conference. In their language, they do not have gendered pronouns. In place of words like “he” and “she,” they rely on “a skirt or tie or some such thing” when determining a person’s gender. Atwood knows that we, the reader, know these symbols are arbitrary. This is not where my problem lies.
The speaker also remarks how, in their language, there is a word for no, but women do not say it. Instead, they say “perhaps,” which will be understood… “on most occasions.” Atwood is, again, winking at the reader. She knows that we know that, to some people, consent is irrelevant in getting what they want. This is also not where my problem lies.
My problem lies in the poem’s conclusion.
A Bitter Aftertaste
In the last two stanzas of the poem, Atwood describes the precarious nature of the translator’s job. These translators risk imprisonment or death if they use the wrong words. And they have no idea what the off-limits terms even are.
At the far end of the table, right next to the door, are those who deal in hazards.
If they translate the wrong word, they might be killed, or at the least, imprisoned.
There is no list of such hazards. They’ll find out only after;
When it might not matter to them about the tie or skirt, or whether they can say No.— Margaret Atwood: “At the Translation Conference”
I do not intend to be hyperbolic when I say that ending feels like something I would expect to hear from a bowtie-wearing chicken nugget prince on Fox News. The woke mob is anti-free speech! Gendered Pronouns have no meaning anymore! How am I supposed to know what words aren’t allowed?! I could be #canceled at any moment!
In all seriousness, how can Atwood begin her poem by chuckling about how silly gendered terminology is, only to end on a disconcerting threat of violence for “using the wrong words?”
Again, my interpretation wasn’t dissuaded by Atwood’s recent tweet of Rosie DiManno’s op-ed (linked above). It also wasn’t helped by another poem in the collection sarcastically referring to “madman” as a “canceled word” that shouldn’t be used anymore.
This is, to put it mildly, an odd dichotomy coming from the woman who once said, “A word after a word after a word is power.”
The Best Poems in Dearly
Whew, that was rough. I know that section might have given the impression that I didn’t actually like Dearly all that much. True, I didn’t love it. How can anyone love a collection that includes the head-scratching implications raised in some of those poems? But, I promise, I did like it!
Here, I’ll prove it!
“Souvenirs” appears in Part One of Dearly. This poem is told from the perspective of an aging person, as they reminisce about times when they would travel to faraway places and bring back souvenirs for their loved ones. There is irony in the act of souvenir-giving, the speaker realizes. As time passes, they will no longer remember where those gifts came from. Someday, they may not even remember the people for whom they once bought such gifts.
Similarly, the recipient of those souvenirs relies on stories told to them by the gift-giver. Eventually, the gift-giver’s memories will fade with time, leaving only the gifted object behind. Similarly, the gift-giver themselves will fade, leaving only their loved ones behind. In the end, they will only appear to their loved ones in dreams and memories. Even those memories will not last forever.
But who is to remember what?
It’s a cute hat, but you’ve never been there. I can remember buying it, and you can remember that I once remembered: I remembered something for you…
I appear in other people’s dreams much oftener than I used to… I’m always there for a reason, so the dreamers tell me. I wouldn’t know.— Margaret Atwood: “Souvenirs”
This poem particularly impacted me as I have lost family members who struggled with age-related memory loss. I sensed the same first-hand experience in Atwood’s words. Her partner, Graeme Gibson, also experienced dementia before he passed. Seeing the people we care about forget things they once treasured is heartbreaking. Remembering the times when they remembered hurts even more.
A Drone Scans the Wreckage
“A Drone Scans the Wreckage” appears in Part Three of Dearly. Part Three may not have had an overarching theme, but this poem clearly comments on the depersonalization of war. The narrator is a missile drone — an inherently inhuman and unempathetic object. The drone contemplates its handiwork moments after raining hellfire down on a nonspecific town.
Smoke gets in my eyes, my fifteen eyes…
They cried O God to the pillows. Now ripped and fluttering angel feathers. These hover, slower than me.
See raw finger paint. Red. Wet, still crawling. Must have missed something.
Better hone in again. Do some stuttering. Attapat. Attatat. Attasis. Attaboom. Accurate this time. Rah. Anything saved equals failure.
Was I bad?— Margaret Atwood: “A Drone Scans the Wreckage”
By taking on the perspective of an emotionless, detached robot, Atwood alludes to the apathy and detachment of the global leaders who make decisions that result in drone strikes like this one. This perspective also forces us, the reader, to face the consequences of the government-sanctioned violence we so often turn away from.
Drones may have the advantage of putting fewer service members in harm’s way. However, they also have one intrinsic, critical side effect. They are, by design, indiscriminate killers. It is sad to think this poem was written in 2012, and it is still as relevant today as it was then. War may be growing more and more depersonalized, Atwood argues. Still, we must resist the urge to depersonalize ourselves from the victims those wars create.
You can read “A Drone Scans the Wreckage” in The New Yorker, where it first appeared in the August 13, 2012 issue.
Walking in the Madman’s Wood
“Walking in the Madman’s Wood” appears in Part Four of Dearly. It fits neatly into that section’s theme of nature; yet, it also fits into the motif of Parts One and Five, with some allusions to aging and memory loss.
This poem follows a man who has returned to a wood where he once made his home. When he lived here, the man marked his territory with rocks, tin can lids, and painted squares nailed into tree trunks. Now, after a long time away, nature has reclaimed what was always hers. His shack has collapsed, the rocks have grown mossy, and mushrooms have annexed overturned logs.
You could get waylaid here, or slip amazed into your tangled head.
You could just not come back.— Margaret Atwood: “Walking in the Madman’s Wood”
I truly loved this poem. In fact, it’s probably one of my favorites in the whole collection. It is rich with imagery and evocative language; it has the feeling of nostalgia and sadness; and, my personal favorite part — the open ending. If you were to stay here, the poem says, nature could reclaim you, too.
Whether that’s a threat or a welcoming invitation is up to you.
“Invisible Man” appears in Part Five of Dearly. This poem focuses on loss and the absence created by the death of a loved one. Here, the speaker remembers the rituals they once shared with their invisible man. They would eat toast and eggs together before taking walks in the crisp autumn air. Now, all that remains of this person is the void their absence has created.
A rustling of the fallen leaves, a slight thickening of the air.
It’s you in the future; we both know that. You’ll be here but not here; a muscle memory,
like hanging a hat on a hook that’s not there any longer.— Margaret Atwood: “Invisible Man”
It doesn’t take a literary analysis expert to see that this poem was clearly influenced by Atwood’s own loss. It is a simple poem with simple language. That simplicity is also very compelling. Almost everyone on Earth knows what it’s like to lose someone. And it’s not uncommon to look for signs of that person even after they’re gone.
What hit me the hardest in this poem was the “muscle memory” line. We get so used to having certain people in our lives that the thought of them not being around is nearly incomprehensible. I couldn’t help but think about what I would do when the friends and family who are so intrinsic to my life are just… gone. There’s no way to know.
All we can do is cherish the time we have for as long as possible.
TL;DR: Dearly is a jumbled, uneven smörgåsbord, but it is unequivocally and undeniably Margaret Atwood.
Well, folks, there you have it. Hopefully, by now, my 2.5-star rating makes a lot more sense. My review may not be overwhelmingly positive, but I don’t regret reading Dearly at all. I have seen other critical reviews mention that this collection is proof that Atwood should “stick to prose” and that she’s clearly not a poet. While not every poem in the anthology spoke to me, I find that a laughably unfitting criticism.
Lest we forget, Margaret Atwood was an acclaimed poet long before becoming a renowned novelist. And with poems such as “Souvenirs,” “Walking in the Madman’s Wood,” “September Mushrooms,” and “Feather,” it’s clear to see that she’s a friggin’ good poet, too.
Dearly is an eclectic grouping of poems that range in quality and tone. One thing is for sure, though. Margaret Atwood’s life, love, and personality are all unmistakably present in each of the pieces in the collection, and I think that’s all any reader can ask of a writer.
Next on the Margaret Atwood Reading List
Wowza! This was another long one, eh? Thank you so much for sticking around to the end of this review. It means a lot to me that you chose to spend your time reading my neurotic ramblings about an old lady’s poetry.
If you think any of these themes or poems might resonate with you, I highly encourage you to read Dearly for yourself. Despite my issues with this collection, the high points were spectacular. Art in general — and especially poetry — is so subjective, and there really is something for everyone here.
I’m looking forward to getting back into Margaret Atwood’s prose; I’ll be reading Oryx and Crake for my 2022 reading challenge later this year.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today! I’ll be back in two weeks with my February Wrap-Up, so stay tuned for that!
As always: thanks for reading, and I’ll see you soon. 💙
Soon, the chrysanthemums will bloom, flowers of the dead, in France.
Don’t think this is morbid. It’s just reality.— Margaret Atwood: “Dearly”
You can also read my reviews on Goodreads. Check this one out ･ﾟ✧here✧ﾟ･.
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