Motto: Whatever it was has happened.
The battle, the sunny day, the moonlit
slipping into lust, the farewell kiss. The poem
washes ashore like flotsam. (Atwood 2020:3)
The volume under discussion poses the following challenge: whether it can be connected to the Covid-19 pandemic, given that it was published slightly before its full onset. I would argue it can and in fact that it should be, due to the undeniable reality of poetic intuition that is able to foresee what is coming upon us. We must never forget that the poet is a visionary, a maker and seer of things (from the Greek term poiesis, meaning “production” or “creation”). This is valid in Margaret Atwood’s case anyway, since she is a literary genius: Dearly presents us with the “bone face” of “the cold grey moon” - a yet-invisible, soon to be revealed, terrifying truth, which in our case may be construed as the spreading of the ominous virus. The title itself is problematic due to ellipsis: is the one word coming from “dearly beloved /missed” or does it refer to things that cost us “dearly”? Maybe all that into one and even more! From the grammarly viewpoint, the ellipsis suggests a state of dependence upon something else (since an adverb or an adjective is always depending upon its verb or noun). This subaltern ‘something’ can however be subversive since it also determines the thing on which it depends. So who is the ‘dearly’ and who is the ‘beloved’ in this story that Atwood spells through her pandemic verses? Hopefully, the close readings attempted below will elucidate this mystery of condensed narrative that exploits subliminally all the possibilities of fiction while resorting to overpowering lyricism which makes poetry a close relative of music.
As Rae Langton argues in her essay on Love and Solipsism, the Socratic imperative of knowing oneself was further enhanced by Kant’s putting it in relationship to a (dearly) beloved “other” (a true friend or lover). Thus, love would be a way out of the solipsistic tendency of the ego but it depends on the person if they really want to improve their knowledge of themselves with the help of this benevolent other or not. For instance, in Proust’s Looking for Time Lost, the departure of Albertine only serves to trigger a chemical reaction in the brain of the main character – a reaction which brings with it the epiphany of love: he misses her instantly, therefore he knows that is capable of love. But that is all, an instant illumination followed by inaction, he will not chase after her because for Proust’s alter-ego, writing is a much more alluring path to pursue self-knowledge than sexual attraction. I believe that my investigation below is in keeping with the Socratic, as well as Kantian approaches to self-knowledge, yet one may be wondering as one reads Atwood’s verse: is humanity capable of evading the prison of the self and opening up to the other (s)? I would argue that the diversity of instantiations of the concept of love illustrated in the selection of poems presented below may support the above point – and even those poems in which the feeling of love does not represent the main theme are pervaded by such a deep awareness of (human) nature that there is no doubt about the fulfillment of the Socratic/Kantian imperative at least as regards the author herself, whose own words confirm it: “We love each other, that’s true whatever it means, but we aren’t good at it; for some it’s a talent, for others only an addiction.”
Ghost Cat is a poem about identification with a beloved pet which is part of one’s familiar universe and the inadvertent carrier of one’s anxiety about the specter of dementia that runs in the family, which leads to fear of being abandoned by your loved ones in times of need and estrangement from humanity:
Then up the stairs she’d come, moth-footed,
like a tiny, fuzzy steam train: Ar-woo! Ar-woo!
So witless and erased. O, who?
Clawing at the bedroom door
shut tight against her. Let me in,
Enclose me, tell me who I was.
Blizzard is a poem about the love for one’s old, sick mother; it doesn’t mention feelings, except those that are obvious from the speaker’s position at the bedside of her parent (“I put my hand on her forehead/stroke her wispy hair” – page 8) and in the final double interrogation, resonant with ambiguity (“Why can’t I let go of her?/ Why can’t I let her go?” - idem)
Coconut, on the other hand, is a poem about the love of taste, in this specific case – coconut tasted for the very first time:
First taste of sheer ambrosia!
Though mixed with ash and the shards of destruction
as Heaven always is, if you read the texts closely.
[Atwood 2020: 9]
Souvenirs is above love as a form of piecing back together, as in a dream, the imaged of a dear one. The process consists of remembering a person by combining fancy and memory with subconscious fears and desires. Ironically, these personal “memories” are presented as souvenirs that the one in your dreams presents you with when you dream of her:
This is what I’ve brought back for you
From the dreamlife, from the alien moon shore,
from the place with no clocks.
It has no color, but it has powers,
Though I don’t know what they are
nor how it unlocks.
Here, it’s yours now.
[Atwood 2020: 11]
In this case, the poetic persona is an active one that travels through dreamland as an explorer would in outer space and brings boons that surpass the waking wisdom. One is reminded here by the recent fantasy series on Netflix, The Sandman, in which the main hero is the Master of Dreams and a God that can coexist both in the dream realm and in the waking world. And then there is the connection one can make between watching online streaming videos rather than going out to a cinema for the movies, so that virtual reality becomes the daily nourishment for our fantasy.
In The Tin Woman Gets a Massage, Atwood confesses to avoiding any feeling in order not to get hurt. She, symbolically, lacks “a heart” just like the Tin Man lacked a brain. But, as we know only too well, a feature that one hopes to inhibit or thinks that is missing may in fact be denied or unacknowledged:
Me, it’s the heart:
that’s the part lacking.
I used to want one:
A dainty cushion of red silk
dangling from a blood ribbon,
fit for sticking pins in.
But I’ve changed my mind.
[Atwood 2020: 12]
Obviously, the persona in the poem used to have a heart! How else would she know they hurt if not from personal experience? A seeming continuation of this idea is to be found in the poem entitled If there were no emptiness, in which the author’s persona praises the importance of distance and vacancy as prerequisites for the co-existence of entities:
It there were no emptiness there would be no life.
Think about it.
All those electrons, particles, and whatnot
crammed in next to each other like junk in an attic,
like trash in a compactor
smashed together in a flat block
so there’s nothing but plasma:
no you no me.
[Atwood 2020: 13]
Another image evoked in the poem is that of an empty motel room that nobody used for seventy years. Intuitively, the poetic imagination seems to be anticipating the vacuity created by the Covid-19 epidemic: deserted malls and parks, empty halls and streets, closed shops and stores etc. These vacuous spaces only engender an impatient craving for openness and proximity to the other(s), a desire for happening and plot:
That room has been static for me for so long:
an emptiness a void a silence
containing an unheard story
ready for me to unlock.
Human sexual activity is not explicitly present in the lines of these poems, except for a few hints. Instead, there is a rather consistent presentation of the animal world (mainly insects) teeming with erotic energy and from here follows the logical comparison with the human world which can be either explicit or implicit. Our attention is drawn by two successive poems entitled Cicadas and Double Entry Slug Sex. The former highlights the building tension caused by the seclusion of at least one of the partners and then the feeling of ephemerality and closeness to death which intensifies desire and renders the passion paroxistic:
This is it, time is short, death is near, but first
first, first, first
in the hot sun, searing, all day long,
in a month that has no name:
this annoying noise of love. This maddening racket.
This - admit it - song.
[Atwood 2020: 22]
The second poem is more ironic than melodramatic in describing the particular mating habits of the snails, but its ending carries a similar existential despair and anxiety:
By daylight something’s got to give.
Or someone. Some one
has got to give. A given.
That’s how we carry on.
[Atwood 2020: 24]
In Everyone Else’s Sex Life, the lyrical discourse transports us from stark disillusionment to a recreation of magic – that is, going against the grain, from the sordid realism of sexual promiscuity to the romantic enchantment that bears the name of Love. However, its final description in the guise of a circus is meant to serve as cautionary image, reminding one of the twists and turns in the Dr. Parnassus movie:
So tempting, that faux-marble arch,
both fun-fair and classical –
so Greek, so Barnum,
such a beacon,
with a sign in gas-blue neon:
Love! This way! In!
[Atwood 2020: 26]
The same bitter aftertaste is to be found in the following poem, entitled Betrayal. Here, the disenchantment is equally abrupt in striking the lyrical persona who is imagined opening the door on a pair of sinful lovers (her partner and his mistress) and being shocked not so much by the confirmation of her suspicions as by an invalidation of idealized Love:
Yet, it was betrayal,
but not of you.
Only of some idea you’d had
of them, soft-lit and mystic,
with snowfall sifting down
and a mauve December sunset –
not this gauche flash,
this flesh akimbo (…)
[Atwood 2020: 27]
I would like to add a few words only about the original rhyming in this poem. There are only two instances of follow-up rhymes which effectively serve to counterpoint the main ideas: in the first stanza “bed” rhymes with “said” (“When you stumble across your lover and your friend/ naked in or on your bed/ there are things that might be said.”) and in the last one, “glare” rhymes with “stare” (“caught in the glare of your stare”). Caught in between these glimpses of a shameful act, the lyrical persona is the righteous voyeur for whom the visualization of such intimacy is akin to physical molestation. However, the simple fact of witnessing this disgraceful union makes the third party integral to the act which they will be inescapably performing as a trio in her (guilty?) mind from now on:
Goodbye is not one of them.
You’ll never close that clumsily opened door,
They’ll be stuck in that room forever.
[Atwood 2020: 27]
A pattern can be said to emerge from poems such as the above or the one entitled Princess Clothing. The author of the verses takes an almost sadomasochistic pleasure in tormenting her own lyrical persona in the sense of revealing to (what can be construed as) an innocent alter ego the fact that, no matter how pure of heart or of high social/moral ranking one may be, corruption and downfall are eventually unavoidable; hers is the natural wisdom of the cycle of seasons or the wheel of fortune, if you like, but the reader cannot escape the feeling that there is something malicious in the pure relish of lines such as these:
is best for shrouds.
That’s where it comes from, silk:
those seven veils the silkworm keeps spinning,
hoping they will be butterflies.
Then they get boiled, and then unscrolled.
It’s what you hope too, right?
That beyond death, there’s flight?
After the shrouding, up you’ll rise,
Delicate wings and all. Oh, honey,
It won’t be like that.
[Atwood 2020: 21]
The Dear Ones is about the intensity of loss and longing after the dearly departed. The author alludes to a legend about a bunch of children that were lured underground by the playing of a magic flute. This came as a punishment for their parents who had refused to give a piper his due. The legend says that they went underground and exited in a totally different place or time. The poem imagines, in a similar fashion, the dear ones departing from us and returning only when it is too late, when all who loved them are gone themselves. The poem reveals how not only the living suffer from the feeling of loss and despair but also the dead. Death is like an irresistible magic call or a cruel game, the ones who must die obey the rules and disappear, while the remaining ones start to resemble ghosts, inhabited as it were by an absence of song:
Where? Where? After a while
You sound like a bird.
You stop but the sorrow goes on calling.
It leaves you and flies out
Over the cold night fields,
searching and searching,
over the river,
over the emptied air.
[Atwood 2020: 41]
I want to conclude with a rather destabilizing image from the poem Zombie, which appears towards the end of the volume. In this poem, a strange similarity emerges between the act of poetry-making (conjuring up memories) and the spreading of a deadly virus, both presented as consequences of a faulty dealing with the past: <“Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts” like a virus, like an infection.>, says Atwood quoting Rilke. Zombie is a poem about the risks of dealing with unresolved issues that haunt and infect us when we try to resurrect them. And love itself is part of the past that comes back to us through the words of the poem:
Stay dead! Stay dead! you conjure,
you who wanted the past back.
Nothing doing. The creature
ambles through the dim forest,
a red weeping monosyllable,
a smeared word tasting of sorrow.
The hand on your shoulder. The almost hand:
Poetry, coming to claim you.
[Atwood 2020: 57]
Similarly to this poetic haunting, the pandemic experience has taken us through an undesirable journey of self knowledge, placing upon our shoulders, from the mirror-side, an ice-cold finger which reminds us of the proximity of death or an imminent separation from humanity. Margaret Atwood’s poems were mostly written before the onset of the pandemics but they are imbued with an obvious sense of emergency and glimpses at future prospects that echo many of the states and feelings that most members of the audience have experienced during the Covid-19 crisis: anxiety, seclusion, desolation, despair (on the dark side) and exhilaration, romance, togetherness, even hope (on the bright side). These are poems that teach invaluable lessons about humanity and warn us regarding the implications of being all too human: that means a state of exposure and vulnerability to life’s many pitfalls. From her vantage position of wisdom and authority, Atwood proposes a lucid, mildly ironic and frequently grotesque vision that drags humanity bare-naked into the limelight. This sudden awakening which her verse performs on the reader’s conscience has a double effect: one is entertaining an adamic notion of the beauty and joy of creation and the other, experiencing a chilling confrontation with the specters of death and suffering. The readers of Dearly are therefore privileged, two-in-one, consumers of a complete poetic experience. And with experience comes resignation, which we must all have shared in the last two years.
Atwood, M. (2021). Dearly. VINTAGE, London.
Langton, R. https://lovequotes.symphonyoflove.net/margaret-atwood-love-quotes-and-love-sayings.html
Wolf, S. and Grau C.(Eds.). (2014). Understanding Love: Philosophy, Film, and Fiction. Oxford U.P.
 Quote from The Grave of the Famous Poet, Dancing Girls and Other Stories.
 The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), guest-starring Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp and Jude Law, among others. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1054606/
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