A Brief History & Review of Margaret Atwood

Written by Kseniya Lukiy

Contributing Editor of Red Cedar Review

In May of 1969, the same year in which Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood debuted her first novel, The Edible Woman, her name could also be seen under the poetry section of the Red Cedar Review. Located on page 43 of Volume 7, Atwood’s poem titled “Border Crossing” refers to the despairing migration from Quebec to Maine. Not yet the household name she is today, Atwood’s humble beginnings included teaching English at several universities in Canada while simultaneously cultivating her prose and poetry. Although not the first collection of poetry I’ve read by Atwood, The Animals in that Country, published while she taught at the Sir George Williams University in Montreal, was the earliest. An avid admirer of the Canadian landscape, Atwood shares musings of the natural world, power imbalances between genders, and a variety of anecdotal subjects. 

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My formal introduction to Atwood’s poetry, however, took place while shelving books at my local library in my late teens. I came across Morning in the Burned House upstairs in the nonfiction section and read it cover to cover, eventually buying my own copy to reread and underline. Published in 1995, Morning in the Burned House centers on subjects such as animal and human behavior, love, and mortality. Throughout my time with Atwood’s poetry, it became clear that she is just as intelligent and refined in her writing as she is outside of it. Atwood writes with the precision of a scientist, dissecting life into moments she then illustrates with words. I’ve personally always admired Atwood’s ability to utilize the world to describe in detail exactly what stirs her. Her imagery and similes have a way of effortlessly belonging exactly where she conducts them, whether it’s comparing sadness to an eyeless doll as she does in “A Sad Child” or storm clouds to rising bread like in the title poem “Morning in the Burned House.”

Furthermore, Atwood’s innovative exploration of perspective is one that I’ve rarely seen in poetry. Attempting to personify an animal or flower, Atwood proceeds to write from that unique perspective. My favorite example of this technique is the poem titled “Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia” in Morning in the Burned House. In that poem, Atwood masterfully writes from Gardner’s point of view of a magnolia as she reflects on her life of fame. Controlled by the Hollywood industry, Atwood elaborates on Gardner’s difficulties and regrets as an actress during her time in the limelight.

Published in 2020, Dearly is Atwood’s latest collection written for her late partner, Canadian author Graeme Gibson, who passed away in September of 2019. Her dedication at the beginning of the book reads “For Graeme, in absentia,” which sets a precedent for the subjects that run throughout the collection. Atwood’s refined voice is as present in Dearly as in all her other collections, albeit more somber. Divided into five sections, overarching themes of death, grief, and time fill the pages. Replacing her streamlined focus of immaculate similes and vocabulary, Atwood instead offers her heart on her sleeve with a tenderness and vulnerability I’ve never seen before from her.

wasn’t the collection Atwood perhaps expected to write

but rather needed to as a form of catharsis. My personal favorite poem is in fact the very last piece in the collection. Exemplifying the delicate passing of time through aging hands “Blackberries” is a nostalgic account of berry picking being passed down through generations. As a young granddaughter in my native Russia, I also have the bittersweet memory of picking raspberries with my own grandmother during the summer. Overall, I completed the collection having learned about wolves, the names of half a dozen different flower species, and most importantly, to never forget to appreciate the life that we are all bestowed with for such a short time. “Don’t think it’s morbid,” Atwood writes in the title poem “Dearly,” “It’s just reality.” Since her early work in the Red Cedar Review, Atwood has significantly grown throughout the decades in both confidence and vulnerability alongside her writing.

Providing a brief chronological history and review of three Margaret Atwood’s poetry collections, Kseniya Lukiy discusses Atwood’s progression as well as her most recent 2020 release.