The cover of Margaret Atwood’s new collection of poetry – taken from a recent work by British sculptor Kate MccGwire – features a great swirl of deep blue feathers, touched by tones of light grey and brown; and it’s appropriate not only because of the number of birds that appear in the 57 poems, or sequences of poems, gathered in this book, but because of the soaring quality of the verse itself, which is often dark, but always illuminated by characteristic flashes of brilliance and wit, and powered by a pure force of creative energy that sometimes feels like a mighty wind, lifting us up and shifting the ground beneath us as we read ... In her novels as in her poetry, though, there are two interwoven strands in her presence as a writer; the one sharp, committed, knowing, political and polemical, the other profoundly poetic, wedded to the ever-shifting miracle of language itself, and far more mysterious and unpredictable in its preoccupations and outcomes ... Atwood’s poetry is vibrant with purpose, brilliant, hard-edged, and instantly legible; and they will doubtless become classics of our troubled time, quoted in polemics and taught in schools ... this whole collection stands as a mighty demonstration of how great poetry can embody and celebrate the sheer vibrancy and beauty of life, in the face of the most profound sorrow and terror. Read these poems aloud, read them carefully, read them with joy and tears; savour the raw power of their rhythms and assonances, and the sheer mastery with which Atwood, at the height of her powers, transforms anger and grief into glinting beauty and brilliance.
This collection of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the past that comes from a place of wisdom and control. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to assume a wry distance from her subjects – as if, in an astounding world, nothing could throw her off balance. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is part of what makes her an outstanding novelist. But poetry is different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, even though the collection is full of pleasures, reading her work makes one consider the extent to which poetry is not only about truth but about the importance of being, at times, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the 'sanity of self-deception'.
Spiked with surprising juxtapositions and wily delight in language, at times mordant, frequently hilarious, and always unflinching, Atwood’s poems are rooted in nature, with spotlights on spiders, cicadas, and slug sex.
... as dense as it is light and is a poetic magic trick that will delight [Atwood's] legion of fans, old and new alike ... Love poems about zombies? Yes, she went there. Enchanting lilting tributes of women who have been raped and murdered? Yes, she went there. In fact, I found myself reading Dearly to discover who she was writing about --- someone she really knows or someone she has invented to be almost real to us ... These poems are forthright and brave, yet beautiful in their hard-told truths. But they also give you the creeps because she is talking about both things that actually exist in the world that we see every day and things that we don’t necessarily notice but are there, just under the surface. The latter hide from us, waiting for us to fall down some rabbit hole where we will be face to face with them, and no mask or goggles can keep us safe from their difficult wisdom ... I recommend Dearly especially to those who only recently have become fans of Atwood’s work. The Grand Dame has so many surprises up her sleeves and on the bookstore shelves for you. You will be amazed at the hurricanes that live underneath the seemingly clear waves of words that will wash over you on an afternoon’s read ... As another lockdown feels near, hold this volume dear for the trips it will take you on while you hunker down on the home front.
Elegiac yet cautionary ... These carefully tuned lyric poems, many lightly rhymed, often bear bitter witness to humankind’s self-destructive treatment of both planet and spirit ... Atwood’s flare for precise metaphor in no way softens her delivery ... Combining the wit of Dorothy Parker with the wisdom of Emily Dickinson, Atwood adds a steely grace and richness all her own. If there is beauty in despair, one may find it here.
Dearly includes some rather good poems (“Blizzard”, about her late mother, is very touching), plenty of polished and competent poems, and a handful of the worst I’ve read this year ... It’s hard to believe this empty dirge came from the same pen as the most inventively savage portrait of man-warped nature I’ve read: Oryx and Crake. In Atwood’s classic sci-fi novel, of course, children grow up in a world not without birds, but where birds have been replaced by mutant 'ChickieNobs' ready for the nugget factory.
Throughout the poems appear silhouettes and dotted lines and shadows and mirages, images just beyond our grasp, conjuring. The ephemera of life builds up; pictures and Polaroids fade. There’s a tension between past and present, between what is and what was ...
... enormously derivative of the high points of her career, marked by Atwood’s distinctive style and use of language, but offering little or nothing new in terms of insight, and little original content ... Atwood’s poetry has a history of minimalist sharpness. Her four-line You Fit Into Me (1971) is a benchmark of linguistic craft and imagery. The poems in Dearly fall short of that mark, and others Atwood herself has set. It’s unclear whether the problem is simply rapidity of writing (that is, they came to press too soon after their creation, without sufficient editing, in order to meet the current Atwood mania), or whether the poems signal a perhaps inevitable decline in the work of now-octogenarian writer ... the poems don’t follow any kind of narrative. They slide from loss into family memory, and then arrive at the perhaps-inevitable theme of revisited fairy tales. The re-visitation, though, itself has traces of dementia: the subtleties of earlier versions are lost. The purpose has to be shouted, where once it would be left as a puzzle to the reader ... When Atwood’s literary canon is tallied, some of her books from the 1970s and a few from the end of her career will slide out of the official list. They will be footnotes to the oeuvre: these were also written, but they aren’t good. You may study them if you wish, but they’ll induce a kind of existential sadness in their failure to be what the others are, and perhaps they’re best left tucked under the pile, difficult to pick up by accident.