Atwood is best known for her novels such as Alias, Grace and The Handmaid's Tale, but it is her poetry that I have most valued. She writes in clear, compelling language, yet each poem contains a moment of surprise, of opening out into something beyond what I thought I understood. These revelatory connections and enlightenment—moments of being as Virginia Woolf called them, the leaping poetry Robert Bly described his book of that name—are what I look for in poetry. And what she refers to in “Poetry reading” in this volume, a description of a “well-known poet — ransacking his innards”. Understanding his compulsion, why he is not a bricklayer or dentist (“Hard-shelled. Impervious.”), detecting the craft behind the emotion, she is still surprised and struck.
Today poets are sometimes urged to make a single narrative of their poetry collection. Atwood has said that she writes individual poems, not volumes. She does not look ahead to how they might work together. I find the process of assembling a manuscript fascinating, entranced by how a poem changes when you set it next to another. Here, the book is divided into five sections. The first has to do with childhood and family; the second with the role of the poet, a theme she has come back to in several volumes. Writing in the turbulent second half of the 20th century, she has addressed political concerns while denying that the writer has a responsibility to society: “Books don't change the world.”
Yet she is still negotiating this relationship, and the poems of the third section address the wrongs of our society without the biting anger of True Stories but rather the insight of age. In “White Cotton T-Shirt” she remembers being a carefree teen-ager, saying “Ignorance makes all things clean. / Our knowledge weighs us down. We want it gone” yet goes on to write about Joan of Arc and war veterans who have kept “a hoard of buttons cut from corpses / as souvenirs”. Her writing has been called Northern Gothic and there are plenty of deliciously terrible images here. This is, after all, the woman who said that Grimm's Fairy Tales was the most influential book she ever read.
The fourth section seems almost a conversation with the preceding two sections. In poems such as “Enough of these discouragements, she defends the horrors she plumbs. “You wanted fire” she says. In “Another Visit to the Oracle” she says:
What would you prefer?
You'd like me to amuse you?
Do some jigs, or pranks? . . .
That's not what I do.
What I do: I see
in darkness. I see
darkness. I see you.
The last section reminds me that the poems in this 2007 book are those of a woman in her late 60s. Having addressed the horrors and dangers of our world, the loss of childhood and innocence, Atwood gives us the consolations of age, though slyly comparing them to the band on the Titanic in “Boat Song”. She talks of hearing “the man you love / talking to himself in the next room” and, listening, we are given the sense of what it means to share so long a life.
In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Atwood wrote: “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” This is what she has done for me, discovered my fears and secret joys and brought them out to the light.