I learned something new about grief today thanks to Margaret Atwood. Not from a character in one of her novels, or a line of her poetry, but from a personal response she made to my request for an interview.
Some background: A couple months ago I wrote an obituary on Canadian poet and publisher Raymond Souster, Atwood’s first publisher at Circle Press. She retweeted me about him almost immediately and I was thrilled: my first-ever retweet and it was from one of Canada’s national treasures and a writer whose work I adore.
My piece ran in the Globe and Mail and maybe Atwood read it. And then, yesterday, I contacted her again for another comment about another recently deceased poet. This time it is Elizabeth Brewster‘s life I am trying to write about as sensitively and as professionally as I can.
Since 1953, Brewster has published 23 books of poetry, two novels, three books of short stories, and two volumes of memoirs. Most people haven’t heard of her; that makes me even more determined to write her story, to quote her verse.
Brewster suffered powerfully during the first half of her life and once almost drowned herself. But she survived and chanced to meet up with a young Atwood at the University of Alberta in 1968.
Atwood was into tarot readings back then and turned the cards over for Elizabeth.
This reading was transformative to Brewster, a friend of hers told me, because it foretold joy as a replacement to sorrow. And much writing ahead. And because she believed in this young, wild-haired psychic of sorts, maybe more in the young Atwood as an individual and writer than in her skills as a clairvoyant, her life unfolded with more promise.
I’m not making this up.
It’s what Elizabeth wrote in autobiographical musings a few years ago.
So I wrote to Margaret Atwood looking for a comment.
“I knew Elizabeth well when we were both living in Edmonton in 1968-70, and kept up with her after that. She was an honest poet, very open, very clear. She kept up her interest in poetry all her life. I’m sorry she has died.”
At first, I was annoyed Dame Atwood said so little.
But then someone I love nudged me towards greater compassion and that always necessary damned diminishment of ego.
Maybe, said this person I love, maybe she is just tired of people dropping dead all around her. Maybe her grief is a quiet thing.
Sometimes I carry with me shades of the reaper, all these requests to speak of the dead when maybe people just want to be left alone. Please, just leave me alone.
But thanks to Margaret Atwood, at least in part anyhow, I’ll be able to write about Elizabeth’s joy.