Margaret Atwood on grief, poetry and the past four years
In an exclusive new poem and essay Margaret Atwood reflects on the passing of time and how to create lasting art in a rapidly changing world
Saturday 7 November 2020
I can say with a measure of certainty – having consulted my poor excuse for a journal – that my poem “Dearly” was written in the third week of August 2017, on a back street of Stratford, Ontario, Canada, with either a pencil or a rollerball (I’d have to check that) on some piece of paper that may have been anything from an old envelope to a shopping list to a notebook page; I’d have to check that as well, but I’m guessing notebook. The language is early 21st-century Canadian English, which accounts for the phrase “less of a shit”, which would never have been used in, for instance, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam AHH”; though something like it might have appeared in one of Chaucer’s more vernacular tales – “lesse of a shitte”, perhaps. This poem was then taken out of a drawer, its handwriting more or less deciphered by me, and typed as a digital document in December 2017. I know that part from the date and time identifier on the document.
The poem was composed much as described at the beginning of it. I was indeed making my way along the sidewalk, rather slowly. My knees were in poor condition due to my having recently spent five hours in a twisted position in the back seat of a car with a one-and-a-half-year-old, with a bunch of luggage piled on top of me. (Improved now, thanks. Or the knees are.) I was in fact carrying half a cup of coffee in a takeout cup with a regrettable plastic lid. (Better options are available now, thanks to the justifiable uproar over plastic pollution.) Slow walking leads to rumination, which leads to poetry. Park benches are my friends, and it wasn’t raining. Scribbling ensued.
Why was I walking alone, and not with Graeme Gibson – with whom I’d walked many hundreds of miles, ever since 1971, in places as diverse as Scotland, Orkney, Cuba, Norfolk, the mid-north mixed forest Canada, southern France, the Canadian Arctic, and the Northwest Territories? Walking had been one of our chief joys – that and canoeing – until his knees started to go, earlier than mine. So he was at the bed and breakfast in Stratford which we had been going to for some years, and I had hobbled out for supplies, fuelling myself with caffeine along the way.
We were in Stratford on our annual visit to see a mix of Shakespeare, musicals, and surprises. Was I also giving a talk? Probably, since I’d just published Hag-Seed, my modern-novel riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the year before – set, not coincidentally, at a festival that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Stratford, Ontario one. Watching Shakespeare, researching Shakespeare, writing about Shakespeare – it’s a short leap to the contemplation of obsolete words, words that are fading, the malleability of language, all language – “gay” used to mean “happy”, and it once referred to the demimonde – and from that to the slipstream of time itself. We’re caught in time’s current. It moves. It leaves things behind.
That’s the foreground. In the near distance, Graeme had received a diagnosis of dementia in 2012, so we were five years into it. “What’s the prognosis?” he’d asked at the time. “Either it will go slowly, or it will go quickly, or it will stay the same, or we don’t know,” said the doctor. In August of 2017 it was still moving slowly enough, but the clock was ticking. We knew the what, but we didn’t know the when. As it turned out, Graeme was to die in almost exactly two years – in September 2019, two days after the London launch of my novel, The Testaments, he had a massive haemorrhagic stroke, typical of vascular dementia – and bowed out at about the time and in about the way he’d wanted to. Quick, relatively painless, and while he was still himself.
We’d talked about this a lot. We tried not to spend too much time under a pall of gloom.
We managed to do a lot of the things we wanted to do, and squeezed out enough happiness from hour to hour. Graeme was pre-mourned: all the poems about him in the book Dearly were written before he actually died.
At the same time, we were dealing with the MGM-Hulu television series of The Handmaid’s Tale – it had launched in April 2017 – and that in itself had been a blockbusting phenomenon. Its multiple wins at the Emmys were still in the future, as was the launch of the excellent mini-series made of Alias Grace – but both of them were still on my mind. Both were also backlit by the lurid glow cast by the 2016 presidential election, which I’d experienced like those nightmare movies where you’re expecting a girl to jump out of a cake and instead it’s the Joker. Had Clinton won the election, The Handmaid’s Tale TV series would have been framed as a bullet dodged. As things were, the viewership was not only very high but very horrified. However, few expected at this point that the efforts to undermine the foundations of American democracy – an independent, functioning media, a judiciary separate from the executive branch, a respect for the constitution and a military that owes its loyalty to the country as embodied in the constitution, not to some king or junta or dictator – would go as far as they were to go by November 2020.
Alias Grace, based on a real double murder of the mid-19th century, was also about to chime eerily, not only with the pussy-grabber-in-chief but also with the #MeToo uprising. The mini-series launched in September, the Harvey Weinstein allegations surfaced in October. But none of that had happened yet as I was limping along the street, meditating on the fading word, “dearly”.
What else was I doing in August 2017? I’d started my novel, The Testaments, about a year before – before the election, but in the lead-up to it. Having said for more than 30 years that I wasn’t going to write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and having thought that, in the 1990s after the end of the cold war, the world was moving away from dictatorships, I’d watched things turn around again after 9/11. Successful coups are staged at times of chaos, fear and social discontent, and by August 2016, we were already seeing a lot of that, not only in the US but around the world. We already knew, back in 1985, that the world of Gilead came to an end – otherwise it would not have been the subject of an academic symposium some 200 or more years later – but we did not know how. In August, I was in the initial or “mud pie” phase of exploring the possibilities, but I was not to send a one-pager to my publishers until February of 2017.
You can’t work easily on a novel while watching two plays a day. You can, however, scribble poetry. And so I did.
Here, then, is “Dearly”: a poem that’s part of its own zeitgeist, while claiming not to be part of it. It’s not exactly a memento mori; more like a memento vita.
To quote Ursula Le Guin (whose obituary I would shortly write, though that, too, had not yet happened), “Only in dark the light. Only in dying life.”
Poems – like everything else – are created in a particular time. (Two thousand BC, AD800, the 14th century, 1858, the first world war, and so on.) They’re also written in a place (Mesopotamia, Britain, France, Japan, Russia); and beyond that, in a location where the writer happens to be (in a study, on a lawn, in bed, in a trench, in a cafe, on an airplane). They are often composed orally, then written down on a surface (clay, papyrus, vellum, paper, digital screen), with a writing implement of some kind (stylus, brush, quill pen, steel nib, pencil, rollerball, computer), and in a particular language (Ancient Egyptian, Old English, Catalan, Chinese, Spanish, Haida).
Beliefs about what a poem is supposed to be (praising the gods, extolling the charms of a beloved, celebrating warlike heroism, praising dukes and duchesses, tearing strips off the power elite, meditating on nature and its creatures and botany, calling on the commoners to rebel, hailing the Great Leap Forward, saying blunt things about your ex and/or the patriarchy) vary widely. How the poem is supposed to accomplish its task (in exalted language, with musical accompaniment, in rhyming couplets, in free verse, in sonnets, with tropes drawn from the word-hoard, with a judicious number of dialect, slang, and swear words, ex tempore at a slam event) are equally numerous and subject to fashion.
The intended audience may range from your fellow goddess priestesses, to the king and court of the moment, to your intellectual workers self-criticism group, to your fellow troubadours, to fashionable society, to your fellow beatniks, to your creative writing 101 class, to your online fans, to – as Emily Dickinson put it – your fellow nobodies. Who can get exiled, shot, or censored for saying what has also veered wildly from time to time and from place to place. In a dictatorship, uneasy lies the bard that bears the frown: the wrong words in the wrong place can get you into a heap of trouble.
So it is with every poem: poems are embedded in their time and place. They can’t renounce their roots. But, with luck, they may also transcend them. All that means, however, is that readers who come along later may appreciate them, though doubtless not in the exact way that was first intended. Hymns to the Great and Terrible Mesopotamian Goddess Inanna are fascinating – to me at least – but they don’t cause the marrow to melt in my bones as they might have done for an ancient listener: I don’t think Inanna may appear at any moment and level a few mountains, though I could always be wrong about that.
Despite the way the Romantics went on about timeless fame and writing for the ages, there’s no “forever” in such matters. Reputations and styles rise and fall, books get spurned and burned, then unearthed and recycled, and today’s singer for eternity is likely to end up as the day after tomorrow’s fire starter, just as the day after tomorrow’s fire starter may be snatched from the flames, extolled and embossed on a plinth. There’s a reason the Wheel of Fortune in the tarot pack is, in fact, a wheel. What goes round comes round, at least sometimes. It’s not called the Inevitable Straight Road Pathway to Fortune. There isn’t one.
That advance warning having been issued, I’ll quote the postman in the film Il Postino, who’s nicked Neruda’s poems and ascribed them to himself in order to serenade his love. “Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it,” he says. “It belongs to those who need it.” Indeed, after the poem has passed out of the hands of the one who’s written it down, and after that person may have departed from time and space and be wafting around as atoms, who else can a poem belong to?
For whom does the bell toll? For you, dear reader. Who is the poem for? Also for you.
It’s an old word, fading now.
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for.
I loved him dearly.
I make my way along the sidewalk
mindfully, because of my wrecked knees
about which I give less of a shit
than you may imagine
since there are other things, more important –
wait for it, you’ll see –
bearing half a coffee
in a paper cup with –
dearly do I regret it –
a plastic lid –
trying to remember what words once meant.
How was it used?
Dearly beloved, we are gathered.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here
in this forgotten photo album
I came across recently.
the sepias, the black and whites, the colour prints,
everyone so much younger.
What is a Polaroid? asks the newborn.
Newborn a decade ago.
How to explain?
You took the picture and then it came out the top.
The top of what?
It’s that baffled look I see a lot.
So hard to describe the smallest details of how –
all these dearly gathered together –
of how we used to live.
We wrapped up garbage
in newspaper tied with string.
What is newspaper?
You see what I mean.
String though, we still have string.
It links things together.
A string of pearls.
That’s what they would say.
How to keep track of the days?
Each one shining,
each one alone,
each one then gone.
I’ve kept some of them in a drawer on paper,
those days, fading now.
Beads can be used for counting.
As in rosaries.
But I don’t like stones around my neck.
Along this street there are many flowers,
fading now because it is August
and dusty, and heading into fall.
Soon the chrysanthemums will bloom,
flowers of the dead, in France.
Don’t think this is morbid.
It’s just reality.
So hard to describe the smallest details of flowers.
This is a stamen, nothing to do with men.
This is a pistil, nothing to do with guns.
It’s the smallest details that foil translators
and myself too, trying to describe.
See what I mean.
You can wander away. You can get lost.
Words can do that.
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 any more.
I sorrow dearly.