Poetry review – How Time is in Fields: Wendy Klein commends Jean Atkin for making authentic poetry out of authentic country lore
It took me two false starts to find my way, start to finish, through this collection. However, that should not be taken as a criticism. Jean Atkin teaches us that so-called nature poems should not be an easy read. On the back cover the poet, Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, notes that ‘this is not a collection motivated by tranquillity.’ I agree entirely. Jean Atkin does not shrink away from the nature’s underbelly where ‘air smells of dung’, ‘dead stock’ and ‘gunshot’. How Time is in Fields is laced through with folklore, mythology, history and a forthright and deep knowledge of the countryside, a walker’s knowledge – and walking, I know from experience, can be a sweaty, occasionally uncomfortable, but always thought-provoking business.
I was not at once at home with the ‘almanack’ format at the start of the book with its unfamiliar vocabulary based on Old English. However, a second reading, and a good set of end notes, allowed me entrance. Like a musical score, Atkin sets out with the old English word, then threads in the rhythm of the walk:
maedmonath the meadow-month all hayseed and diesel, us crosslegged on the rocking stack of bales. (‘almanack i’)
Ancient and modern at once, the strangeness became more attractive with each subsequent reading. She returns to the almanack four times, once for each season like a leitmotif in a musical composition, ending with:
oesturmonath in the month of opening -- what splits what shifts what births what widens its eyes? (‘almanack iv’)
Atkins demonstrates so many poet skills in this collection that it is hard to know where to begin in praising them. She recognises the importance of good, strong verbs, adapting them to her purpose. In ‘How we rode after haytiming’ ponies are ‘hairtriggered’ into flight by a shout. In the poem ‘In Yellowhammer Weather’,
Frank’s Clun sheep rub their backs on the boles. They brace their hooves between thin-fingered roots and rake their rumps.
rub, brace, rake – and with a dash of alliteration to boot. In a diary poem, ‘Eglwyseg Day’, a path is ‘full-stopped’ at a brink by a sleeping sheep,’ and later, a dead sheep is ‘spreadeagled’ by a wall. In the final poem, ‘In a fair field at Whiteleaved Oak’, ‘a whole wood “boomed” under a plane.’ I could fill this review with more such examples, but there is much else to mention.
The title poem is a masterpiece of what I would describe as the personification of the natural:
In Rye Croft Coppy, a mole turned mortal, upside to heaven. Above him brown Ringlets wavered the clover.
— another terrific verb ‘wavered’ the clover. We find ‘Manes of Elderflower’ flowing into a hedge, and the poet heads downhill, with barley ‘hissing’ on her jeans. And then unexpectedly, a triumph in four stanzas in full rhyme, appropriately staggered: ‘The tattoo’d man’
has had a skinful, to go only by what shows. His bull neck ‘s chained, a padlock swings above its own hatched shadow. In scrolling calligraphic script, his knife arm pledges faith in love, and brags his unsurrendered soul.
The poem continues with a well-rounded characterisation built on details from his tattoos, concluding:
With men, it’s never easy to be sure, but here’s one who’s tried to take the outside in. He’s shifty as gulls and bitter as bark. Every night he reads that skin: his library of pain and virtue bright and thin.
This portrait is so vivid, you can see the man leaning over the bar to order his sixth pint, but in all his rough exterior, the poet manages to convey a sense of empathy. She establishes this palpable connection again through the judicious use of metaphor and simile in ‘Not there, nearly’ , epigraph, ‘Old Church, Slade’: the morning is ‘cream blackthorn warm’, the air is ‘lamb-bleat’ soft, ‘A tawny owl flies in daylight, has the wrong century’, and in the final stanza, ‘the moat ghosts halfway round / its mound. Bluebells glimmer like a rumour.’
Nowhere is this use of metaphor emerging from description more evident than in ‘The breaker’, in this case of horses. The poet introduces him, telling the reader how he does his job and then underpins this through powerful metaphor:
He was drizzle off the fell and frayed rope halters. He was comfrey poultice and strong tea. He was the running horse under the hill.
Wherever she takes us, Atkin’s poems are grounded in life, death, and the passage of time. It is all there in ‘Nettle lexicon’. The poem is set out in four numbered stages of life and place with a generic ‘definition’ for each: ‘1 nettle of the edgelands / the dare in childhood to touch a nettle: will you grip that hairy leaf? / Stand still and rigid for this ordeal / while they wait in a circle to watch your face?’ The fourth nettle takes the reader beyond the personal to the symbolism of nettles where they become ‘markers /for our wiped-out villages, abandoned farms.’ The poet asks us to notice: ‘how rife they are in lost places.’
Images of loss and death are threaded through this collection, marking how time is in fields, how we cannot stop time. The poet finds a dead oystercatcher: ‘our children white / with shock, they’ve not yet seen the death / of something young.’ (‘Oystercatchers’). In ‘near Todleth’, A lame ewe ‘lurches away from her twins / her bag all lumpy with mastitis.’ In ‘Boreas’ (the purple-winged Greek god of the North wind – my note),
After two months, it’s about hunger. The sheep are tamer, come to call. Just now, in snow by the byre, a wren like a dead leaf
In only 4 lines, 2 stanzas, Atkins pinpoints what wintertime means, what it does. I find a blend of hope, pathos and wistfulness here, with a profound insight that celebrates nature in all its aspects, benign and raw at once. Someone said, or maybe I made it up myself, that there is such life in looking death in the face. That is exactly what this poet achieves in this unique and beautifully executed collection.