Poetry Review: Much With Body by Polly Atkin

Poetry Book - Much with Body by Polly AtkinPolly Atkin’s second poetry collection is a book of unpredictable creatures and their ever-changing habitats, many of which are watery or wild. The opening poem draws you in to a world where ‘Everyone is talking about the moon / The full wolf moon’, ending with the unsettling image of the sky growling and creeping forward ‘ready to take us down’.   

It is through these creatures and their habitats that the poet explores the limitations of the human body, grappling with the challenges of illness and fatigue. The poem ‘Bluebell Season’ is an intriguing self-analysis of our relationship with nature, and with our own sense of self:

You’re thinking about yourself divested of the self again you do it
often, putting yourself in second person.

What you mean is I
I wanted it, this bluebell high, the deer transfixed by my human body
unable to move forward, or backward, until I remove it

and its history.
You wanted out of it, this alarming body, its scent of harm.
You carry it home all the same.

There is a pervading sense, throughout the collection, of hyper-awareness when it comes to the physicality of being human. We cannot help but be aware of the impact we have on the world in which we live, and sickness makes this awareness all the more palpable, as we struggle against the limitations of our bodies.

Nature and wilderness appear often in this collection, in places where we don’t expect them: inside our homes, our minds, or our bodies. I enjoyed the multidimensionality of ‘Frog Season’ with the constant appearance of miniature frogs in the house. And this poem, ‘Bear in the Library’, is one of my favourites:

When you first hear it you are not sure
whether the bear is in your ear or the library.
Whether the bear is in your chest or the library.
When it growls again – the low, unthinking
growl of a bear lost in its reading –
you spot it. You try to stay calm. It is only
studying. It is only natural for a bear
to be growling a little as it turns the pages…

I’m still pondering these poems. I like the fact that they are kept open, full of possibility.

I enjoyed reading the found poems that incorporate extracts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. These poems are a beautiful, evocative portrayal of how one woman’s daily life was framed by weather. In times of illness, our perception of inside and outside, our link with seasonal change, is heightened, and these poems portray that sense of simultaneous connection and separation.

I was lucky enough to volunteer at The Wordsworth Trust for several months in 2007-8, and have many precious memories of handling and reading the priceless manuscripts in their collection. These poems feel true to the original voice of Dorothy Wordsworth herself.

Another poem that stood out for me was ‘Breath Test’, from the third section of the book:

My breath got lost in the post. I sent
a box of it out, portioned in six
foil bags like space food rations. I addressed it
as instructed, sent it away, a long
exhale. Bated breath…

You can almost feel yourself losing breath as you attempt to negotiate those enjambments.

This is a versatile collection, with a range of different styles of poetry. Many of the poems invite us to ponder on how we interact with the natural world, in both a physical and a metaphorical sense. They also depict, in new and interesting ways, what it means to be ill, in a world where sickness tends to be hidden away and forgotten.

Much with Body by Polly Atkin is published by Seren Books.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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