Poetry review – MUCH WITH BODY: Pat Edwards is surprised and moved by this collection from Polly Atkin
This collection is divided into three sections: the first is rooted in the poet’s rural surroundings in Cumbria; the second is an extraordinary exploration of pain utilising the words of Dorothy Wordsworth; and the last gives a more intimate and personal voyage through the poet’s own understanding of living with pain and illness.
If I hadn’t read the back cover, I would not have been immediately aware that Polly Atkin lives with disability, although this certainly becomes apparent quite early on in the collection. This is a dilemma that has concerned me before when reading work, how much a writer’s situation, personality, and lifestyle is important to know about when reading their poetry. Many poems in the book are clearly predominantly about pain and illness, but others are about the landscape, seasons, wildlife and the poet’s deep connection with these external themes. Here it is possible to sense Atkin relishing the freedom of movement enjoyed by creatures and find her escaping into the realms of nature almost as voyeur. In ‘Lakeclean’ the poet swims, tells the reader:
We sweep mountains aside with our arms without wincing. We move with something like ease
and we can share her palpable joy.
Atkin often plays with reversing and repeating words and phrases as a means of exploring possibilities and drawing out contrasts:
We have no moon here, only rain rain coming out of a sodden dark a bristly dark scattered with rain drops rain drops as stars.
This technique is somewhat playful and at other times deliberately forces the reader to absorb the intended meaning and to face up to the duality of this as in ‘Dark Hedges/Barbed Wire’ in which Atkin proposes:
A history of staking out territory of barbed wire as an agent of colony, holding in cattle/out people, holding in people like cattle.
It is challenging and interesting to have to work hard as a reader and, after a while, you come to expect these puzzles and conundrums to solve. You even come to enjoy them. ‘Unwalking’ is a clever example where Atkin questions us about access, about the difference between an able body and a disabled one:
Waiting is not the opposite of walking. Unwalking is not the same as waiting. I do not have to move to be moved. Are you moved?
There is a confidence, a self-assurance in:
We who unwalk are not without value. We are not without value. We are not without.
Section two begins with ‘Dorothy’s Rain’. The book is in memory of Dorothy Wordsworth and is inscribed, “for all those who live with pain”. The poem is three full pages of notes about the weather, mostly rain. It’s like an incantation, makes the sound of rain, leaves the reader sodden, drenched through by the endless falling of rain – I loved it! Although incessant rain, like continuous pain, is not a good thing, I loved the crafting of this poem and the way it assaults the reader on the page and when read aloud, for I did in fact read it aloud, to get a sense of the sound and never-ending quality of it. The other poems in this section also draw on the metaphor of rain, using pathetic fallacy as a means to express the cycle of pain and ultimately its darkness and oppression.
The final section hits hard with the reality of what living with ill health must be like, the insomnia, the struggle for breath, the medication and hospital visits. ‘Breath Test’ is a clever play on words concerning breath or lack of it. It is a frightening poem in which the words ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ feel all too real. ‘Paper Pellets on a Saucer’ starkly concludes, “Pain convinces me that I’m not wholly a fiction.” If this wasn’t enough to convince us of the inconvenience and horror of living this way, ‘v/s Monthlies’ tells us:
My monthlies come dressed up as a 16 gauge needle swinging an empty pint-sized tote and a bag of saline.
Further poems reference veins and leeches, a reminder of medical interventions. The final poem, ‘Sailing by Silvership’, brings us full-circle to the topic of the moon. Atkin ends the collection with honesty and resilience:
The moon is a ship and we are sailing in her how can we not talk about her?
I was moved by this collection which places the joy of nature alongside the lived experience of those who suffer, the wild and free next to images of confinement and inaccessibility. The work creeps up on you, surprising the reader by stalking and hiding in the undergrowth. It then jumps out from hidden places and attacks the vulnerability of the unsuspecting reader. Atkin has crafted poems in both traditional and highly experimental forms with huge success, and I am sure to re-visit them and talk about them as fine examples of the power of poetry to express important contemporary messages.