When writing Dearly, or collating poems for the anthology, Atwood clearly had death on her mind.
Published at the end of 2020, death had been centre stage for Atwood with the pandemic and the loss of her beloved husband Graeme Gibson. The later poems, like Invisible Man and Blackberries, became heavily embedded with the distressing notion.
However, unlike poets who are haunted by the notion of death and cannot write anything without it influence their writing (namely Larkin), Atwood seems at peace with the end of life.
In Blackberries, Atwood seems to be addressing a younger figure (maybe her child or her younger self). “Decades ahead, you’ll study your own / temporary hands, and you’ll remember. / Don’t cry, this is what happens”.
Beautifully portraying the fluidity of time through the enjambment and short flighty lines, Atwood abruptly brings the lines to halt with memory. The power to be able to recall and mix the past and present. A simple action like suddenly becoming aware of your hands you see they are no longer the childlike hands that were free of labour and full of play. Your hands have begun to wrinkle and ache — they’re not as skilled anymore. Time has fleeted and you are only losing more of it.
Perhaps when Atwood writes she sometimes glances down at her hands and recognises they’re not as fast anymore. She becomes aware of her age. But, she’s not afraid. She knows death is inevitable. Why cry about something you cannot control? Control what you still can do with those limited years left — hopefully write some more wonderful poetry. Atwood would make a great Epicurean!
Whilst her death may not be daunting, there is something more painful about losing a lost one — something that is harder to overcome. Losing someone dearly to you leaves a huge gap in your life and absence that cannot be filled by anyone else. I would know after losing two people dear to me last year.
Atwood encapsulates this weird feeling of loss perfectly. In Invisible Man she writes: “You’ll be there but not here, / a muscle memory, like a hat / on a hook that’s not there any longer”. Losing someone close to you is just like losing something material that was an essential furnishing to the environment. Once it is gone there is an absence that seems off and out of place because it has been filled for so long. You could buy a new hat to put there, but it would not be the same. Maybe it’s reductive to compare a human to a hat, but we out body is just as temporal as the woolly fabric.
The juxtaposition between here and there is nauseating. Sometimes you’ll see something that will evoke all the memories of that loved one — it will make them feel like they are here but they are actually there. They are there in the past, in memory. They can never be here again.
This was my first time reading Atwood’s poetry and it was everything I wanted and needed. A poet is grappling with her grief unknowingly helped me with mine as well.