“Both playful and sharp like teeth” – Dearly by Margaret Atwood

Sometimes I listen to audiobooks in tandem with actual hold in your hands books. Sometimes I hopscotch between reading a book, in those quiet moments when I get to read, and continuing with an interspersed chapter in audio form while I’m driving. Sometimes I do both simultaneously, a book open in front of me, headphones in, an actor or sometimes the author reading in my ears as my eyes scan the words. Sometimes, after I’ve read a book, if I enjoyed myself, if I hear an audiobook is particularly good, I’ll do a re-read in audio form. On rare occasion, if an audiobook is dazzling (like, say, Lincoln in the Bardo) I’ll re-listen, a few times. I mention all of this, by way of context (as you’d expect) because I came to Margaret Atwood’s latest book of poetry in audioform, read by Atwood herself, and it too is dazzling.

It isn’t dazzling in quite the same way as Lincoln in the Bardo with its multiform celebrity cacophony of voices. There is only Atwood here, aged 82, recently bereaved – the collection is dedicated to the memory of her late husband Graeme and many of the poems contained herein are about him, about their life, about her memory of him and them together, about what is left now he is gone. You’d be right to think of both Michel Faber’s Undying and also, in a strange way, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. This collection feels as good, or better, than those. You might be reminded of Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers too. There are also echoes too of Barbara Kingsolver’s recent poetry collection How to Fly (you get the sense that politically Atwood and Kingsolver are not a million miles apart and each of them wrestle with both mortality and climate change – although, it must be said, Atwood’s words feel more muscular, more supple, both playful and sharp like teeth).

So yes there is grief here, as you would expect – the grief that comes from sitting across a table from an absence, the grief that comes from eating a square of cheese stolen from a recent flight in a lonely hotel room – and there is a sense in which the grief travels out into the world, taking in #metoo (with poems that centre on the deaths or rapes of women at the hands of men, poems that conjure up Edna O’Brien’s recent Girl), that take in the damage we are doing and have done to the world, poems (like ‘Oh Children’ which I can see taught in schools in years to come, performed aloud by Greta Thunberg) that look ahead to the world to come, poems that hope, poems that know to hope is foolish, poems grounded in science and reality, poems howling with pain. And then, after flying outwards, it returns, a pulse on recoil, ending with a poem in which an old woman thinks of the old women she knew as a girl, looks ahead to the reader possibly being old themselves, the hands that can’t lie, the age you can’t hide. There are moments in the audiobook (which I would wholeheartedly recommend in tandem with the actual book of words itself) where you can hear every second of Atwood’s years, particularly as she reads the words that she has used to traverse the space in which she currently finds herself, the gulf of early widowhood.

All told, it’s profoundly moving. It’s also funny, as you’d expect, Atwood being a tremendously gifted comic writer, sturdy and argumentative, witty and catlike, roiling with spells (as you’d expect), unusual word choices, vivid imagery (I was particularly fond of a coconut mentioned early in the book and compared to “the round hard hairy breast of some wooden sasquatch”). She rescues words like old sea shells washed up on a beach (both the title poem which comes close to the end of the book and an early poem called ‘Late poems’ intrigue with their thoughtfulness and humour). It’s a short book too but one you can imagine easing from the shelf (or returning to in audioform, if I can savagely belabour the point), reading (or listening) again, afresh. In these early days of the Biden win, it’s heartening to read something that almost says yes, be optimistic if you can, but don’t forget where optimism got us in the past, it may be too late for optimism, what else are you going to do?

Any Cop?: Dearly is a book we can imagine buying for others, reading aloud from, mentioning whenever someone asks us if there is anything good we’ve read recently (we get asked that a lot).

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