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For The 1st Time In A Decade, Margaret Atwood Publishes A New Poetry Collection

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Fans of "The Handmaid's Tale" or the "MaddAddam" trilogy already know that Margaret Atwood has a knack for writing novels that tap into our real-world zeitgeist. Turns out she has the same knack with poetry. Her new collection is introspective and personal. The poems take on aging and grief and lust. The book is called "Dearly." And when I spoke with Atwood this week, we dove right in on that last one, lust.

There's some wonderful poems about sex, one titled "Cicadas." This is Page 22. I'm going to get you to read it to us.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yes.

KELLY: This is about insect sex.

ATWOOD: It's not human sex.

KELLY: No, it's bugs. But it is - it's steamy.

ATWOOD: Oh, you think?

KELLY: Yeah.

ATWOOD: I don't know what the cicadas will think of it. Just to make you laugh, Amazon UK had got this book as No. 1 under the category of erotic poetry.

KELLY: (Laughter).

ATWOOD: And I thought, what? What are they thinking? Well, if you're a slug, yeah, there's one about slugs that gets pretty entwined.

KELLY: Read us "Cicadas" so people know what...

ATWOOD: Yeah. So the cicadas, yes. "Cicadas." (Reading) Finally, after nine years of snouting through darkness, he inches up scarred bark and cuts loose the yammer of desire, the piercing one note of a jackhammer vibrating like a slow bolt of lightning, splitting the air and leaving a smell like burnt tar paper. Now, it says. Now, it says, now, clinging with six clawed legs. And close by, a sheen like a withered ear, a shed leaf brown and veined shivers in sync and moves closer. 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 admitted song.

KELLY: Oh, wow. I am never going to hear that cicada song outside my bedroom window in the same way again.

ATWOOD: Although you may be just as annoyed by it.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I think I'm going to be rooting for them.

ATWOOD: They can get pretty loud.

KELLY: So yes, there is joy and coupling in these poems, but Margaret Atwood also writes of grief and the end of relationships, including one central to her own life.

The dedication of this book reads for Graeme in absentia. This is Graeme Gibson, your partner of more than 45 years.

ATWOOD: Yes. He died in September of 2019.

KELLY: I'm very sorry.

ATWOOD: Well, as you can probably figure out from the poems, we knew it was coming. We knew what Graeme had, which was vascular dementia. And we knew that people with vascular dementia very frequently die of cerebral hemorrhages, which is what, in fact, happened.

KELLY: So you were able to prepare. But then, of course, there's the whole how you deal with it after. There's always the after in how you deal with a loss.

ATWOOD: There's always the after. But I think it's easier, a bit easier, to deal with it after if you knew about it sometime before.

KELLY: There's - well, there are several poems in here that I read as your wrestling with his loss. The poem, "Within" - read this one for us, if you would.

ATWOOD: So I've been with several people while they were dying, and that could apply to actually any of them. And I think a lot of people have had this experience, especially as they get older. "Within." (Reading) Outside, we see a shriveling. But from within, as felt by heart and breath and inner skin, how different of us, how come, how part of everything, how a starry, dark, last breath. Divine, perhaps - perhaps relief. The lovers caught and sealed inside a cavern, voices raised in one last hovering duet until the small wax light goes out. Well, anyway, I held your hand, and maybe you held mine as the stone or universe closed in around you, though not me. I'm still outside.

KELLY: Outside because you're left behind. You're still alive.

ATWOOD: Well, we usually think of death as a separation. And we think of the living as the ones who are still going on and having experience, et cetera. But it could be the other way around.

KELLY: Yeah. The very last poem in the collection is this lovely note of grace. It's a poem called "Blackberries." And I wonder if you would read that one for us.

ATWOOD: "Blackberries." (Reading) In the early morning, an old woman is picking blackberries in the shade. It will be too hot later, but right now there's dew. Some berries fall. Those are for squirrels. Some are unripe, reserved for bears. Some go into the metal bowl. Those are for you so you may taste them just for a moment. That's good times - one little sweetness after another, then quickly gone. Once, this old woman I'm conjuring up for you would have been my grandmother. Today, it's me. Years from now, it might be you if you're quite lucky. The hands reaching in among the leaves and spines were once my mother's. I've passed them on. Decades ahead, you'll study your own temporary hands, and you'll remember. Don't cry. This is what happens. Look; the steel - excuse me. Look; the steel bowl is almost full, enough for all of us. The blackberries gleam like glass, like the glass ornaments we hang on trees in December to remind ourselves to be grateful for a snow. Some berries occur in sun, but they are smaller. It's as I always told you. The best ones grow in shadow.

KELLY: It's beautiful. And I can hear it snagging at you.

ATWOOD: It did. Yes, it did.

KELLY: Yeah. Would you share what it is about that one?

ATWOOD: Oh, well, you know, I think it's all in the poem.

KELLY: And it's the beauty and the hope and the - that it's caught up in the loss and the shadow.

ATWOOD: What would a life be if it were lived entirely in daylight? A nightmare.

KELLY: That's Margaret Atwood. Her new collection of poetry is titled "Dearly." Margaret Atwood, this was a pleasure. Thank you.

ATWOOD: Oh, a pleasure for me. You didn't want to talk about the election.

KELLY: (Laughter) I'm so very happy not to talk about the election.

ATWOOD: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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