There's a personal reason why Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale, has written so poignantly about dementia. Her long-time partner, novelist and conservationist Graeme Gibson, died in September 2019, having lived with the condition for years.
The Canadian author, Atwood, said at the time, 'We are devastated by the loss of Graeme, our beloved father, grandfather, and spouse, but we are happy that he achieved the kind of swift exit he wanted and avoided the decline into further dementia that he feared.' But, she added, 'He had a lovely last few weeks, and he went out on a high, surrounded by love, friendship and appreciation. We are grateful for his wise, ethical, and committed life.'
Her latest collection of poems entitled Dearly (Chatto and Windus, 2020) is dedicated to him – 'For Graeme, in absentia' – and the poems speak lovingly of 'Mr Lionheart' and 'Invisible Man', weaving memories of their shared love of birdwatching with a growing apprehension about the time when, 'You'll be here but not here.'
The title poem 'Dearly' is an exploration of how memories play out in our old age – and how much we still long for those we love when there's nothing more tangible than photographs to remember them by:
'Dearly beloved gathered here together
in this closed drawer,
fading now, I miss you…'
We are fortunate that Atwood has gone through her old poems and brought them together in this latest collection. Introducing them, she says, 'Handwritten, put in a drawer, typed, revised. These poems were written between 2008 and 2019. During those eleven years, things got darker in the world. Also I grew older. People very close to me died.
'Poetry deals with the core of human existence,' she explains, 'life, death, renewal, change; as well as fairness and unfairness, injustice and sometimes justice. The world in all is variety. The weather. Time. Sadness. Joy.'
I certainly enjoyed all that she offers in Dearly, both of sorrow (another word, she says, 'you don't hear much anymore') and joy. Readers whose lives are also touched by dementia may find they resonate especially with such an authoritative voice appreciated, for her fiction and poetry, the world over.
This title can be ordered from Penguin Books.