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The Prophet

Atwood’s poetic voice

Shannon Hengen

We chatted at a conference several decades ago. As we had tea on a patio after her poetry reading, I made bold to ask if she would be publishing a new collection sometime soon. In her distinctively pointed voice, without hesitation, she replied with a grin: “No. I’ve read the late Tennyson.” Yet a couple of volumes of poems have appeared since then, and now Dearly has come out, quickly reaching the bestseller lists.

Like her immediately recognizable speaking voice, the persona of Margaret Atwood’s poems is unique. But unlike her speaking voice, it’s a persona that shifts over time. The latest work predicts and admonishes, though subtly. This is somehow a wiser voice than before — still bracing but winsome. Put down your Tennyson and pick up Dearly.

In the opening sections, we sense we’re sitting with her in the twilight. It’s fall. We’re sipping Laphroaig. We hear the new persona first when she recites the introspective opening piece, “Late Poems,” and then laugh out loud at “Everyone Else’s Sex Life.” The shifts in tone from ominous to playful remind me of my later meetings with her.

In 1999, Clare Coulter mounted an adaptation of Atwood’s Good Bones at the Tarragon Theatre, in Toronto. I was teaching my “Atwood’s Short Fiction” course at the time, at Laurentian University in Sudbury, and decided to take my small class to the show. I let the author know where we were having lunch before the performance, and she agreed to join us. It was around the time of her birthday, and my students decided to bake her a cake, which we carted down Highway 69 in the back of our van. As I introduced her to the group, she imitated how, as she got out of her taxi, the driver had said of our chosen café, “That’s not a great place to go into alone, ma’am.” Perhaps he could sense she was about to get chocolate frosting all over her hands.

A decade later, in 2008, Atwood came to Sudbury to celebrate her November birthday with a fundraising dinner hosted by the Laurentian English Department. I recall the spontaneous ovation in an overcrowded room as she walked in and the endless string of fans who queued up after dinner to have a book signed — to each of whom she spoke attentively. She celebrated her birthday with us for the next six years, and the funds from those hugely popular gatherings went to social causes she supports: ecology, Indigenous learning.

Her partner, the convivial Graeme Gibson, accompanied her on three of the trips. Together we toured Nickel City, ate Timbits, explored the couple’s preferred tastes in Scotch, swapped stories. Once, over lunch, she relayed how, when visiting her late friend Chief Harry St. Denis, at Wolf Lake First Nation near Témiscaming, Quebec, she brought about hilarity with her imitation of the Queen.

She met with undergraduate students on each visit. Any rumour or misapprehension we might have had of a sharp tongue was displaced by the patience and encouragement she showed them unfailingly. And now when I read this new volume of poems, I hear that patient and encouraging Atwood alongside the octogenarian seer who refuses to look away from the real: her decline, ours, the planet’s.

Atwood’s fiction forces us to look closely at where we’re going, and for that we hold her in awe. To properly describe the range of voices in her many novels is a mighty task indeed. But even a selective glance at those seventeen books, not to mention eight collections of short fiction, helps us approach the poetry.

I bought her first novel, The Edible Woman, at the wonderfully named Canada Book and Drug in Regina, not long after it was published in 1969, starting decades of reading and writing about an author who seemed to want to teach me something urgently. While I have loved and appreciated countless writers over the years, I have never sensed any of them except Atwood to be speaking directly to me. That is madness, of course. But considering the astounding popularity of her fiction, that madness must be shared around the world.

Marian MacAlpin, of that debut novel, ignores her distrust of her fiancé and boredom with her work and her co-workers to the extent that she becomes anorexic, then cannibalistic, making a cake in the shape of a woman for her bewildered partner. Atwood the novelist seemed to be shouting at the docile young women of my generation to alter the script — to rewrite it, in fact. But how? And why?

The unnamed narrator of her 1972 novel, Surfacing, no less numb and passive than Marian MacAlpin and having ignored an abortion, similarly enacts her own near-death, in this case by drowning. Then she ditches her companions and eats hallucinogenic plants alone in the remote northern bush. Is that how we young women should learn to change the story?

Skip ahead to the hugely successful The Handmaid’s Tale, from 1985, whose Offred and friends failed to see the signs of encroaching tyranny around them in their supposedly liberated lives before the fundamentalist coup. Again, Offred is frighteningly and obviously one of us. But a slight shift happens here: by the end of this speculative work, the central character shows a glimmer of courage. Being forced by the savage power of the regime, she overcomes her passivity and acts in solidarity with other resisters to survive. (I was once with a group of critics who joined Atwood on a tour of French universities, where she addressed large lecture halls full of students preparing for their national exams, which included The Handmaid’s Tale that year. We could all feel their deep regard for her and her prescient voice.)

Solidarity with others is important. In The Robber Bride, from 1993, the villain Zenia certainly reads signs and acts to survive but at great cost to the three more familiar Atwoodian characters. Zenia dies and the others form a friendship that has a hint of solidarity.

The trio of speculative novels published in this century started with Oryx and Crake in 2003. The main character, numb and passive, is now a man, which does not feel like progress. Beyond those three books comes The Heart Goes Last, in 2015, with male and female characters equally, and chillingly, clueless. They don’t figure things out. They don’t join with others to resist. They end badly.

Most recently, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale has the ruthless, brilliant Aunt Lydia as its protagonist. In The Testaments, co-winner of the Booker Prize in 2019, Atwood changes the storyline dramatically. But at what cost? Aunt Lydia acts alone. Is there solidarity anywhere in this novel? Is it effective? Is anybody happy?

Margaret Atwood is not and has never been the poet of happiness. Prophets rarely are. But she has been a wise voice throughout her twelve volumes of poetry. Unlike her voice in prose — devoted as it is to plot lines and to whether they are inexorable — her poetic voice is sensual. No less the teacher as a poet than she is as a writer of prose, she nevertheless morphs into a lyricist, appealing to us through our senses. A comparison: if Atwood’s prose is like a recipe for, say, bread, then her poetry is the aroma of it baking.

Atwood invokes stories from fairy tale, myth, history, ordinary life, the natural world — any text with the power to offer guidance — and tells them through the experience of one discerning voice. Her skill with the various meanings and sounds of words has not diminished over time: Dearly certainly attests to that. Her voice remains strong. It’s the persona that has changed.

From 1966 to 1986 — twenty years — Atwood published nine books of poems. The last three books have come out over a quarter of a century. Why, having been put off by the late Tennyson, does she continue to write poetry at all? To witness and document that inescapable change?

At twenty-seven, she published The Circle Game, where the voice senses menace everywhere. Vulnerable, she is also herself dangerous, unlike in the latest poems published at eighty-one, where her vulnerability has no defence. In a sequence of seven short pieces in The Circle Game, she says: “Leave my evasions / alone / stay in the borders / I’ve drawn.” It ends with “what you destroyed / with your transient hands // you did so gently / I didn’t notice at the time.”

At forty-two, Atwood published True Stories, a remarkable volume: “The true story is vicious / and multiple and untrue.” Brutal scenes of human depravity mix with the act of teaching a child to spell —“how to make spells.” What is the power of words against the power of hatred and brute force?

Seasons figure in her every poetry book, less often summer than fall or winter. Attend to the passage of time, this persona admonishes. Attend to memory, especially its decline. Reflections on presence and absence recur increasingly throughout the body of work, absence being especially poignant in the latest. Only a lyricist as skilled and practised as Atwood can write movingly about absence, which is — to cite one apt metaphor — as elusive as the wind.

If the seer’s voice in her novels tells us repeatedly to read the signs and to act, its poetic counterpart speaks eloquently to the subtler value of being present. She witnesses the decline and deaths of parents, often repeating the insight first shared in True Stories: “Witness is what you must bear.”

At fifty-six, Atwood published Morning in the Burned House, with a complete section devoted to the death of her father — her memories and dreams of him, her helplessness. Here she speaks of the wind as “nothingness / in motion, like time. The power of what is not there.” This persona is present for her dying father, and at his death she feels his absence keenly. Against any of the forces over which we have little control, especially time and decline, words offer no defence. She chronicles that truth by being present, bearing witness.

When she published The Door, in 2007, Atwood was sixty-seven. In this volume, the speaker is present for her mother’s death and asks, “What can I possibly tell her? / I’m here. / I’m here.” Is that enough? Poems about poetry and about the power of words to touch what is vital appear in The Door, as they do throughout her poetic oeuvre. She describes poets as having “the irritating look / of those who know more than we do.” But “if you try for a simple answer” to what they know, “they pretend to be crazy, / or else drunk.” She also considers, as she does throughout her career, the study of sexual and other politics.

In two war photo poems, she describes one “dead beautiful woman” among “other dead people scattered around / . . . left in the wake of frightened men / battering their way to some huge purpose / they can’t now exactly remember.” Does her image lead the speaker into “despair” and “helplessness” or “into the heart of prayer”? Yes, Atwood the poet occasionally cites prayer, again asking what its power might be.

Dearly brings us into absence most skillfully. Her partner of many years has died, leaving “the shape of an absence / in your place at the table.” She asks of all the dear ones, “Where are they? / Where? Where? After a while / You sound like a bird. / You stop, but the sorrow goes on calling.” In “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” a seven-poem cycle, she mourns women lost to stories they have not had the power to shape — not unlike her early fictive characters. And she mourns her own powerlessness: “I was too late, / Too late to save you.”

The “Plasticene Suite” of nine poems catalogues our alarming waste and brings together Atwood’s wry and wise voices in a kind of lyric chorus. I imagine her reading these poems aloud, demonstrating that her skill with the sound of words is as exceptional as in the earliest poems. About a baby bird in the Midway Islands, lying dead from eating plastic, she observes “this glittering mess, / this festering nestwork.” In the next poem, “Editorial Notes,” she quotes an editor of her work who suggests that she “pull back somewhat / from exhortation and despair,” about which she subtly concludes, “There is some danger in this.”

The seventh poem in the suite evokes a recent news item about a whale carrying her dead calf —“So big and sad”— for three days. The whale mourns her baby, the victim of “toxic plastic.” Repeating “so big and sad,” the speaker declares “something must be done” and asks, “Will we decide to, finally?” As we do nothing, our use of plastic makes us increasingly absurd, with our “(beloved twistable / pea‑green always dependable / ice‑cube tray . . . ).”

The menace around the speaker of Atwood’s earliest poems is now much more obviously and strikingly the speaker herself. Like her, we are “the lobotomized,” who “drink martinis and go on cruises” while “the world fries.” The plangent voice is reflecting on loss — the title poem an elegy on “an old word.” She tells us, “I miss you all dearly.”

Reading Margaret Atwood’s poetry has sharpened my perceptions for fifty years, helping me conjure that space between despair and wonder, the chill of betrayal and the warmth of love. As I age — as we all age — we need her to continue to sit with us in the twilight. We need the late Atwood.


Inspirations

The Circle Game
Contact Press, 1966
True Stories
Oxford, 1981
Morning in the Burned House
McClelland & Stewart, 1995
The Door
McClelland & Stewart, 2007
Dearly
McClelland & Stewart, 2020
 

Shannon Hengen is a literary critic in Regina.

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