Composition Notes: Polly Atkin

Notes on ‘Sister Running’; ‘Strength in Winter’; ‘Perihelion’.

On the surface, the thing that most strongly links these three poems is that they have a lot of weather in them; a lot of sky. One of the things I most love about Grasmere is the sky: its ever-changing moods; the complexity of its little-lit darkness; the long summer light; the sharpness and excess of stars on a crisp night, when you can see the milky way. They are all also in some way about friendship, the ways we relate to our loved ones, and a sense of shared understanding.

In terms of composition, the three offer a good overview of the various ways I end up at a poem. ‘Perihelion’ is the most recent, and was written quite quickly in January 2014. It’s a kind of love poem to the sun. Perihelion is the point of orbit at which a planet or comet is closest to its sun. Earth’s perihelion is in early January, which seems wonderfully ironic and resonant: in the Northern hemisphere the sun is closest to us when it feels farthest away. As a cold-blooded sun-lover, I find winter difficult, and struggle with a compulsion to hibernate. This is one of a sub-category of poems that begin in a phrase someone else has written, or says, which appears to me to carry more weight or meaning than perhaps it was meant to. The second sentence is from a Slate article about perihelion. Reading about perihelion changed what I thought I knew about the sun, and my relationship with it.  There is also an implicit reference to a song by Neko Case, ‘Night Still Comes’, in the phrasing of the last lines, which I was thinking of whilst writing ‘Perihelion’.

‘Sister Running’ was written in November 2010, and is the earliest of the three poems. On some levels it is a poem about expression, and having – or creating – the freedom to exercise it. It has a kind of exploded sonnet structure, like a jack pine sonnet. It has its origin in ‘actual events’. There was a terrible storm one night that November. The next day my dear friend and co-conspirator Eileen Pun and her then-housemate Lillian woke to clear blue skies, fine sun, and a fallen tree completely blocking their door. As I remember it, Eileen opened the top of the stable-door, climbed over the tree, and set off on the much-needed run the weather had held her back from the previous day. Eileen is a brilliant poet (you can read some of her more recent poems in Ten: The New Wave from Bloodaxe): ‘he is thin/in his ends’ is a quote from an unpublished early poem of hers featuring a winter-stripped tree as a kind of sad Byronic hero. That phrase seemed the only way to think of this fallen giant supplicating himself at the door of the cottage like an unwanted suitor. After the recent storms I had a conversation with Lillian recalling this day and how obstructive it was to her, which reminded me there is always another story inside or running parallel to the one you are given or give.

‘Strength in Winter’ is the most complicated of the three in terms of process. It was written for the wonderful, tiny, totally independent Beautiful Dragons Press ( ) which was founded by Rebecca Bilkau and Sarah Hymas in 2012 to publish an anthology of twenty-four poems by twenty-four poets: one for each hour of shortest day. Instead of a traditional biographical note, we each sent in details of where we were during our allotted hour. I spent my hour marking the solstice with friends, and it seemed right to use a plural voice: the poem uses the pronoun ‘we’ throughout. The following year, Rebecca gave a coven of women the task of writing a poem on Walpurgisnacht (April 30th), also instructing us to allow ourselves to write more extravagantly than perhaps we were used to. I remember her saying that she was struck at that time by a proliferation of very short, tight poems, and wanted to see what happened if we experimented with longer and looser forms.

My poems had been slowly expanding already. My first pamphlet ‘bone song’ consists mostly of poems I wrote during my MA year at Royal Holloway, where the editorial process had been very much focused on succinctness, as it is with many British poetry workshops – or was – I do think this has changed and is changing. In 2009 ‘bone song’ was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. At the awards event the poems were described as ones in which ‘you couldn’t see the scaffolding’. This sounds like it could be a compliment, but somehow felt like an insult. By that time I’d already written several of the poems which ended up in my second pamphlet, but without the safety-net or rigorous scrutiny of the MA workshop was a little worried that they were getting baggy in some unacceptable way. Rebecca’s instruction for The Witching Hour gave me license to loosen up further, to be less strict with myself and my words, and see where it took me.

In 2013 Rebecca devised another challenge: a poem for each of the 88 recognised constellations. I chose Leo Major for a very simple and rather superstitious reason: my star-sign is Leo, as is my partner’s, his father’s, my mother’s, Eileen’s and her partner’s, and several other close friends’. I knew, however I approached it, that I would have something to write about. Stars had featured heavily in my Walpurgisnacht poem ‘Free Night’. Like the solstice poem, it is written in the first person plural, but that ‘we’ is just Eileen and I, standing in the middle of the road that divided the houses we lived in then, and looking to the sky to chuck down material for our Walpurgisnacht poems. It was very obliging. ‘Strength in Winter’ is a kind of continuation or response to ‘Free Night’, expanding to include more members of our little pride. We were all feeling rather like lions who had lost our roars when I wrote it, and I wanted ‘Strength in Winter’ to carry forward some of the incantatory nature of my previous Beautiful Dragons poems.

As I researched the constellation and its history, I found a lot more that appealed to me. Leo Major is one of the oldest recognized constellations, and though classically-educated Europeans tend to associate it with the legend of Heracles and the Nemean lion, there are other and older legends associated with it. Its venerability also means that each of its constituent parts – the stars that make up the shape of the lion – have many names in different languages. I’m fascinated by this kind of thing – the way culture and cultural myths travel through space and time or don’t – are reiterated or over-written – and humans’ compulsion to attach narrative, names and meaning to non-human things. I am also very attracted to the peculiarities of technical language and specific terms, and why we name things what we name them.

I wanted to get some of all of this into the poem. We were limited to one page this time, but I had enjoyed the taste of space The Witching Hour gave me, and wanted to continue playing with a longer line and looser syntax. Of course, I ended up with far too much. I went through a number of drafts, shrinking the poem down and down and tightening up the shape on the page, until I had a poem with long lines; some broken to make a kind of wave structure. I wanted the shape to say something about ‘dead light travelling’. I’m not sure it did to anyone but me, but that’s enough. Its long lines wouldn’t fit the Lonely Crowd page though, so I did a last minute re-shape for this issue, re-developing a split line structure I’d dabbled with earlier in the drafting process. So this version of ‘Strength in Winter’ is a Lonely Crowd special. I like the idea of the poem existing in slightly alternate versions, a bit like the myths about the constellation.

My partner’s academic work is on Canadian literature and culture, and long before we got together, he would send me poems by Canadian poets I’d never heard of: Don McKay, Dionne Brand, Karen Solie, Erin Moure, Michael DeBeyer, Lorna Crozier and many more. Reading them changed my ideas about what I liked in a poem, and what I wanted my own work to be doing. I have him to thank not only for a bringing a whole new library of amazing poets into my life, but also some wonderful musicians, including Basia Bulat, whose song ‘Once more for the Dollshouse’ gives ‘Strength in Winter’ its epigraph. Part of what chimed for me in both the poetry and music was their landscapes: like Canada, I suppose, they contain many more lakes and mountains than the average contemporary British poem. Certainly many more than the largely metropolitan poems I was reading in most English journals and from most English presses. In my mind inevitably I mapped these Canadian lakes and mountains onto the lakes and mountains of Cumbria. So when Basia sings ‘once more, for the mountains/may we find them at our door’ to me she is singing about Helm Crag, Stone Arthur, Loughrigg: the mountains that create the bowl of Grasmere vale.

‘Strength in Winter’ anticipates relief and rebirth after a long winter. An earlier draft questioned ‘who is the lion/who is the maiden’, alluding to the legend behind the tarot card Strength, which feeds into the title phrase. It is set in February, which is when I wrote it, and when Leo Major becomes visible here. It looks forward to April when Leo is full risen. At the time I was working on ‘Strength in Winter’ I had been struggling with undiagnosed health problems, including excruciating abdominal pain. After years of tests, I had been discharged and told there was nothing wrong. In January, I had noticed a lump at the site of the pain, which in February, at the time of writing, was thought to be a soft-tissue growth. I had an appointment for surgery with the expectation that this would be removed in April, which seemed excellent timing for a metaphorical connection between the Lion rising, the sickle of Leo, and the removal of the thorn in my paw, as it were. For me this was literal. For the others implicated in the poem, the thorn or splinter is more allegorical.

When April did come, I found out my ‘splinter’ was actually a callous around a poorly-healed cracked rib, not a foreign body to be removed after all. This led to my eventual diagnosis in October 2014 with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (a hereditary connective tissue disorder), which led to my diagnosis in January 2016 with Haemochromatosis (a hereditary metabolic disorder in which too much iron is absorbed). I think the poem already knew that my problems were really about bones, blood and inheritance: about ‘lunar mansions of oracle bones’; ‘obsolete galaxies’ luminous ghosts’; what it means to be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’. It certainly knew before I did how important it is to ‘learn to speak of what we are made of’ if we are to have any hope of healing or recuperation. Really, that is what all three of these poems are trying to do, in different ways: to speak of pain, and to work out how to move forward less limited by it.

pollyPolly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches (Bridgend: Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. In 2014 she was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize, for work towards her forthcoming collection ‘reflect[ing] a strong sense of place or the natural environment’. Recent work has been published in New Welsh Reader and The Clearing. She teaches Creative Writing and English Studies at the University of Strathclyde.

The poems discussed above are featured in the spring issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.

Words & Images © Polly Atkin, 2016.