Hold of the Almost-Hand

Dearly, Margaret Atwood’s first book of poetry in more than a decade, offers readers the playful wit and social commentary they’ve come to expect in her work, but this collection feels different from her others. The poetry of Dearly represents the voice of experience as it considers the passing of time, of “time laid out like a picnic” (5), and considers what remains after our time, the leaving of a legacy.

Atwood begins Dearly with a poem called “Late Poems” that introduces this focus on time and asks what poems, if they represent what has passed or what comes after, are for. The poem concludes that although the poems might be “[t]oo late to be of help,” we must “sing what [we] can” (3). “It’s late, it’s very late; / too late for dancing,” we’re told, but we’re urged nevertheless to “[t]urn up the light: sing on” (3). More than forty years after the publication of her first collection of short stories, Dancing Girls, Atwood in Dearly turns again toward poetry to convey songs illuminating darknesses that shadow us. She shows us the “blizzard ahead” that awaits the twilight of our lives, which is “both dark and light, like snow” (8). The poems span a broad timeline, from “Digging Up the Scythians” to the speculative future of the “Plasticene Suite.” With poems of various forms and tones, Dearly ultimately explores what poetry can do. Following Rilke’s assertion that “[p]oetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts” (qtd. in Atwood 56), the poems contemplate how lyrics remind us of our connections with others as we make sense of and mark the passage of time.

From the aging of bodies, sung by the Three Fates in “One Day,” to that of words themselves in “Sad Utensils,” the poems collectively address time and how our perspectives shift as we age. In “Sad Utensils,” a speaker reflecting on that which is lost considers 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[.] (105)

Atwood continues her long-time exploration of language here by considering words we no longer use and the impact of the ones we do. Poems like “Spring Poem” and “Spelling” from You Are Happy (1974) and True Stories (1981), respectively, focus on the power of language and words to make things happen. But “Sad Utensils” strikes a more sombre tone in weighing simultaneously the words lost to us and what words to use to express loss. The poem’s last lines— “And what to do with these binoculars, / sixty years old or more, / reft of their war?” (105)—reflect the musings of a poet who has long concerned herself with power politics and is now considering the staying power of “soundstone[s],” here signifying both poets and the words they use.

In some of Dearly’s poems, Atwood gestures toward and prefigures her own losses, narrowing her scope when locating the acute pain of the loss of a loved one. Many of the most beautiful lines of the collection seem to pay homage to Atwood’s relationship with Graeme Gibson, her late partner of more than four decades who lived for some time with dementia before his passing. There circulates within the poems of Dearly songs of the birds that Gibson, himself a novelist and nature writer, loved. The poem “The Dear Ones” depicts its birdsong as “sorrow [that] goes on calling. / It leaves you and flies out” (41).

Birds abound in Dearly as do other animals such as spiders and wolves and whales. Atwood even wonders what mushrooms “unfurling like moist fans, living sponges, / like radar dishes, listening” can “hear in our human world / of so-called light and air” (47). If Atwood’s scope narrows when focusing on ones we hold dear, in other poems she widens that scope to represent the ways that other beings form connections and communicate. The poem “Cicadas” summons “the piercing one-note of a jackhammer, / vibrating like a slow bolt of lightning / splitting the air,” an “annoying noise of love,” a racket that is—“admit it—song” (22). The urgency of our listening changes, though, when we consider the extended mourning of “a mother whale / carrying her child”: “Everyone cried when they saw it / in the square blue sea of the TV: / so big and sad” (89).

By framing these scenes and drawing our attention to their songs, Dearly points toward what might be lost if we’re not more conscious of our effects on the world around us. The songs of Dearly are ones of experience that mark not only the bonds with those closest with us, but also those we haven’t thought of or do not know. “Carving the Jacks” warns that “[a]fter we’re gone / the work of our knives will survive us” (49), and “Walking in the Madman’s Wood” recalls the time that man “loved this wildland / once, before his brain / turned lacework” and “mark[ed] his line: / mine, mine, mine, mine” (71). Always conscious of time, Dearly begins to imagine a way out of the madman’s “tangled head” (72) but suggests we must find a way back soon if we want to hear the “dry shushing leaves” (71).

Likening poetry to the zombie figure that has re-emerged in popular culture, Dearly figures poetry “coming to claim you” as “[t]he hand on your shoulder. The almost-hand” (57). Noting that “nothing . . . // is wasted,” the speaker of “Feather”

picked up one plume from the slaughter,
sharpened and split the quill,
hunted for ink

and drew [a] poem

with the hope of capturing the “calligraphy of wrecked wings,” the bird’s “fading panic” and “night” (73). “Blackberries,” the last poem in Dearly, closes with the line “the best ones grow in shadow” (122). As Dearly sheds light on darkness around us, it shows us that loss makes what is most dear more apparent, and it gestures toward things worth fighting for and believing in, poetry among them.

This review “Hold of the Almost-Hand” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 176-177.

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