Composition Notes: boggled, distraced … / Polly Atkin

Polly Atkin discusses her two poems in Issue Eleven of The Lonely Crowd.


I have an ever-growing pile of poems that have been generated by mishearings, misreadings or mis-spellings of words. I find I often have a different interpretation of the fractions that make up words, in sound or on the page, to those around me. Words glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, or when especially tired, take on variant shapes and meanings. Even when I have realized what the word is ‘meant’ to say or signify, the alternative lingers like the memory of dream I can’t shake. A shadow word; an alternative dimension word. I can explain this away as the product of a mix of dyslexia, dyscalculia and the proprioceptive and processing differences that come with connective tissue disorders, but that does not negate the uncanny sense that a word can be different for me than the person next to me. That a word, like a sub-atomic particle, can change completely depending on who observes it, when. We all understand that the meaning of a word can change from person to person – a word will always be trailing a galaxy of different context for each one of us – but usually the word does not physically change.

‘Distraced’, rather than sinking into the alternative dimension presented by the word-slip (as I do for example in the poem ‘Tiny Glass Horses’ in my collection Basic Nest Architecture), tries to explore the alternative meaning suggested by the slip. Traced is a word we know and use: why not distraced? What would it mean to be distraced, and what relationship does it have to distracted, the word it split away from through my error? Moreover, is it an error, or is the slip revealing something I needed to learn, something I had been, in fact, distracted from?

‘Borders Gothic’

The simple version of the story of ‘Borders Gothic’ begins with an evening spent exploring a digital map made by Alan Cleaver and Leslie Park of ‘Boggles of Cumbria’, that accompanies a book they published. Boggle is an old Cumberland term which describes ghosts, apparitions, and spirits of all kinds. The map draws on folktales to locate particular ghoulish manifestations. The word ‘ghost’ generally refers to the spirit of a once-living thing, whether human or animal, but a boggle can seemingly be anything, from the ghost of an actual person (white ladies, decapitated and drowned women, black friars and bright boys) or groups of people (the Salterbeck Boggle appears as four drunken sailors carrying a coffin) to weird animals (black dogs, white horses and moon-white calves), to inanimate objects, cairns, spectral fires, dark clusters, and even just funny feelings in particular places.

I was quite struck by the inclusivity, in this sense, of the boggle, and what it might mean to be haunted, or not be haunted, under such terms. I was also intrigued by how many boggles haunt paths and roads, and their intersections – crossroads, bridges – the places that link places and are themselves between places. Boggles often seem to be border creatures: haunting the edges, disrupting travel in or out. In their book The Boggles of Cumbria Cleaver and Parks recount that a boggle is any thing ‘expected to appear where they have no business’, which in itself is a compelling idea. Who decides whether a figure or object has business in a place? The definition of a boggle seems to revolve around a communal idea of belonging, and of not-belonging. It is both inclusive, in that anything can be a boggle, and excluding. If a boggle is anything that shouldn’t be there, it suggests an innate or communal agreement on what should be there. I’m interested in how ghosts more broadly act as reminders of pasts that people might otherwise try to forget or ignore. Read together, the boggle stories trouble Cumbria’s history, dredging up religious and social conflict, disputes about land ownership, disenfranchisement, and complicity in colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade.

In standard English boggle is a verb not a noun: ‘to start with fright or amazementbe overwhelmed’ or ‘to hesitate because of doubt, fear, or scruples’. I suppose it makes sense that a Cumberland boggle is a boggle because this is very much the effect they have on their witnesses, whether the boggle is a household item that refuses to go away, or a strange shape on the road. A boggle boggles its witness: frightens, amazes or overwhelms them, fills them with doubt, ignites scruples.

The nature of these boggles is both generic – in that you can see patterns that occur in folk stories and hauntings from around the world – and specific and located. Both particularly Cumbria, and global. It seemed to me that this reflected something about Cumbria itself – insular, distinctive, cut of geographically in some ways, but also linked historically and contemporaneously to global trade and cultures. Initially I titled the poem ‘Boggled’, but then I worried that out of context the double meaning of the word would be lost. Instead I settled on ‘Borders Gothic’: hoping it would begin to unpack the associations I found in the stories for others, and draw out that sense of wavering between location and dislocation, and of a haunting that is to do with boundaries and edges.

So really, both of these poems are about things that are out of place, or not quite where or what you think they should be. The word distraced appearing in my line of vision is a small, attention-seeking boggle, troubling my comprehension of both language and myself. I was boggled when I wrote ‘Distraced’. And every boggle troubles an agreed understanding of what it might mean to be in or out of place, to be traced, or distraced.

Polly Atkin lives in Grasmere. She grew up in Nottingham, then lived in East London for seven years before moving to the North West. She has taught English Literature and Creative Writing at QMUL, Lancaster University, the University of Cumbria, and most recently at the University of Strathclyde.

Her debut collection of poetry Basic Nest Architecture is published by Seren.

You can purchase Issue 11 of The Lonely Crowd here.