BOOK BOX

Review: Atwood on love, loss and zombies

In this week’s edition of Book Box, we look at new poetry, including long-awaited collections by Singapore Writers Festival directors past and present, as well as a fresh biography of Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo

POETRY

DEARLY

By Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus/Hardcover/124 pages/$30.94/Books Kinokuniya

4/5

In her first poetry collection in over a decade, Margaret Atwood meditates on love and time. Also, zombies.

"Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts," she writes, quoting Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, then adds, "like a virus, like an infection".

The Canadian Booker Prize-winning novelist of The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and the post-apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy (2003 to 2013) is a towering figure of dystopian fiction, a genre typically shelved in the science-fiction section.

It is possible that some of the poems of Dearly could be classed as science fiction, fantasy or horror. One senses that Atwood does not care about such literary labels.

Zombies wander freely through her verse, as do aliens, werewolves, sirens and even slugs - the last in the outrageously titled Double-Entry Slug Sex. Her sense of humour is wicked and often shows up where you least expect it.

Yet this is also a volume of "late poems", reckoning with war and the climate crisis, as well as the more personal devastations of age, loss and mortality.

Atwood, 82 this year, often wears the mantle of elder stateswoman, willingly or no. In Health Class (1953), she takes on the persona of a teacher trying to educate giggling adolescents about periods.

"You like to pretend I'm funny/ but I frighten you," she writes, "I who was once pink gelatin/am now a cold grey moon/waiting in your future."

It is also her younger self she addresses - in Silver Slippers, which alludes to The Wizard Of Oz - she who was once the ingenue Dorothy is coming full cycle into the Wicked Witch, waiting for the end to come, for the house to fall on her.

These are sobering moments, simply delivered. Atwood is never ostentatious with language, though she loves to dissect it, as she does in Sad Utensils with the now-archaic word "reft" - "honed, like all words,/in the mouths of hundreds, of thousands,/rolled like a soundstone over and over,/sharpened by the now dead".

These pages are full of absences. She writes of sitting at her mother's deathbed, watching her go "deeper,/into the blizzard ahead of her". The book is dedicated to Atwood's partner Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019 after a struggle with dementia.

Atwood is rolling her words to come to terms with inevitable loss, and even then she recognises how their shifting meanings can lead you astray. In Dearly - a poem about words on the verge of extinction - she falls back on the simplest of them: "I miss the missing, those who left earlier./I miss even those who are still here."

Not one for nostalgia, even she cannot resist looking back on a life well lived, now distant in the past - "your time laid out like a picnic", she writes in the wry, lovely poem Salt, "in the sun, still glowing,/although it's night".

Don't look behind, she is warned, like Lot's wife in the Bible, you'll turn to salt. "Why not, though? Why not look?/Isn't it glittery?/ Isn't it pretty, back there?"

If you like this, read: Morning In The Burned House (Mariner Books, 1996, $28.19, Books Kinokuniya), in which Atwood also explores ageing and mortality, albeit at a much earlier point in her life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2021, with the headline 'Atwood on love, loss and zombies'. Subscribe