Basic Nest Architecture

Polly Atkin
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 27, 2017
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Longlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize 2019

‘With her keen senses, she celebrates nature in all its glory. ’ – Disclaimer Magazine

‘Powerful and tender’ – Mslexia


Basic Nest Architecture, Polly Atkin’s first collection of poetry, marks a startling new talent. Known for a couple of prize-winning pamphlets, including her Seren/Mslexia prize-winning Shadow Dispatches, and her Michael Marks nominated Bone Song, and widely shortlisted for competitions, Atkin has already built up a loyal readership for her complex, intelligent, densely metaphorical lyrics, often inspired by the beauties of the Lake District where she has made her home for a decade.

The book is divided into three sections: the first contains poems quite directly inspired by the author’s move from the city to the Lakes. In the beautifully bee-haunted (And Troubadour prize-winning) ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ the protagonist says “To leave the City was to leave one’s memory./Outside was a garden gone wild.” The poems begin to discover and enact the spells cast by nature, landscapes and animals become charged with tension as in ‘Heron/Snow’ where the bird carries “worlds in the cipher of your feathers.” Later, one of the lakes appears like “a blue-green iris of one great eye”. The author’s imaginative grasp excludes cliché, and she expertly grapples with her own animal obsessions as in the lively ‘Road-Kill’.

Most of section two moves back in time and uncovers earlier locations and subjects. It is clear that the celestial heavens, weathers and things seen from city windows inspired the poet earlier in her development. But there is a distinct sense of claustrophobia in some of the poems like ‘Dreams’: “You are sick to death of my dreams./I drag them out, one after the other.” The wonderful ‘Strength in Winter’ is a parade of glorious detail concerning the Constellation Leo in all its manifestations, it is a full-bodied fantasy to console the protagonist for the gloom of the season.  

The final section contains more painful work, literally and figuratively. These poems are hints from the autobiography of the poet who suffered for many years from a mysterious and debilitating illness. The poem ‘Begin’ recalls a sixteen-year old, purloining doctor’s letters from her mother’s handbag so she could try to secretly decipher them, as if it is almost a game: “then you play medical snap with the encyclopedia, trying to match up your blood with its names.” Other poems are less literal, but use these experiences to reach-out towards a wider metaphor, such as in ‘Imaging’ where an MRI inspires musing on other dimensions “I met its whirling motion in the dark”.

The remarkable poems in Basic Nest Architecture are a testament to the persistence and artistry of Polly Atkin. As well as being profoundly personal, they reach out to the modern world in all it’s complexity and diversity.


Review by Zoë Brigley, Magma

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


... Polly Atkin’s narrators in Basic Nest Architecture are more elusive, devoting themselves to recording specific experiences in the external, natural world, but offering a surprising turn in poems near the end. The poems have a quiet musicality, employing litany, lists, refrains, and interesting shapes and gaps on the page. The opening poem follows Atkin’s own journey from London to Cumbria where she now lives, and seems Darwinian in its description of the city as hive. Titled Colony Collapse Disorder, it conveys a mechanistic, bleak portrait of the metropolis in comparison with wild spaces:

Friends visit and tell me that elsewhere is death
and the sky cannot feed me. Not indefinitely.
Their eyes are blown bulbs. They rattle. I smell
honey on their skin and know how it is.

The poems that follow are selfless, devoted to bees, paths, birds, snow, kindling, horses, deer, roadkill, lakes, stars and especially rabbits, and they all teeter against a sense of risk, danger and vulnerability in the wilderness for the creatures that inhabit the land.

Among these poems devoted to nature, a quiet speaking voice begins to make itself heard, first in poems that thrill in the loneliness of wild, uninhabited places. When I Lived Alone is subversive in celebrating solitariness:

me and the house, being good together.
I slept curled up against the cool
stretch of its ribs like a cub. It breathed
gently into me. ...

In comparison, In the city I was born in struggles with the metropolis, the speaker imagining herself as a spider in the yawning maw of the urban, while Moon Salutation praises a return to the countryside.

The architecture of the collection’s ordering makes a fascinating move at this point, introducing a series of poems where reality is slightly off-kilter, where dreams are spiders (Dreams), horses chink and shatter (Tiny Glass Horses), fox carcasses come back to life (Other People Dream of Foxes), and plastic dolls are babies (Doll Parts). The book gradually closes the gap between the internal life of the speaker and sublime encounters with the external world.

The end of the collection, when Atkin finally allows her narrator to reveal a little more, is remarkable. Poems like Begin, Cannulation and The Test document – in a slanted manner – the experience of living with chronic illness. The third rabbit poem, Rabbit in hiding, suddenly brings together the skittish, vulnerable rabbit, and the narrator who stumbles on the drive, and can no longer tell what is rock and what is animal. Atkin’s collection is surprising because the structure of the book refuses to confess, but adds to the complexity of the poems by holding back the revelation of a speaker’s personal struggles. ...


[Extract from Magma 72, reproduced with permission]



Review by Jenny Hockey, WriteOutLoud

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Polly Atkin teaches English studies at the University of Strathclyde and lives in the Lake District, an inspiration for much of her writing.  Basic Nest Architecture is her debut collection. At least a dozen of its poems have won,  been commended or shortlisted in poetry competitions, and an extract from it was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize in 2014. Atkin also won the Mslexia pamphlet prize in 2012 with her pamphlet, Shadow Dispatches, also published by Seren.

Although the Peak District is on my doorstep and I get out there when I can, this collection made me long for a much more engaged relationship with the natural world. Cover notes describe it as “themed around three interwoven ideas – place as nest, the mind as nest, and the body as nest”.  Between its pages I found a distinctive atmosphere and sensibility. Its dedication reads “for the beautiful wild”, but as you read the poems the speaker and “the beautiful wild” become indivisible.  It is the poet’s embodied presence and her perceptual apparatus that makes the natural world accessible as a felt experience, rather than something “out there” that we visit and contemplate. Starting with a movement away from city and its “film of constant light”, where the speaker felt  “information bloom in my blood. It sang/in my cells” (‘Colony Collapse Disorder’), the embodied self and its surroundings gradually become inextricable.  

Some of the poems do not give themselves up to interpretation lightly; others offer more straightforward entry into aspects of a lived landscape.   I enjoyed ‘The New Path’, which explores a path laid directly through Bainriggs wood in the Lake District, one that Wordsworth resented for the way it disturbed the tranquillity of the lakeshore. “Its public name/is Improvement”, says the poem (I love that capital ‘I’), beautifully laying out the distinction made by the anthropologist Tim Ingold  between “open”, meandering lines, without fixed destinations; and those, like the new path, that are “closed”, that  tell us “The world is for walking /over, not through”.  A similarly inviting poem is ‘When I lived alone’ which sets out the satisfactions of living alone in a house where “I slept curled up against the cool/stretch of its ribs like a cub”. 

Yet this is no simple and potentially sentimental love affair with the speaker’s new home in the country. From its first line, this poem invites uncertainty: “When I lived alone I was clean. Good.” Is the speaker entirely committed to being “good”?  The poem’s detail, though – of drinking Rooibos, the pot of good black coffee on the hob – absolutely showed me what life would be like in this house. ‘Kindling’ similarly drew me into the speaker’s everyday lived experience during “the winter of fires that would not take” where “you piled all you could on your bed but still”.

The collection divides into three sections and as we move into the second one, the speaker’s body becomes increasingly blended with not only her immediate surroundings, the valley and its night-time noises, but also the galaxies that surround her , “the known and unknown/elements of our prowling bodies unfolding/from the blooming sky” (‘Strength in Winter’).  Yet, as in ‘When I lived alone’, these poems refuse to settle for certainty. In ‘Moving’, for example, the speaker fears that her house is flooding while she is away, that her “precious possessions” are perishing. Yet the poem ends with:


     On the train you watch the storm through the window

     redefine the sky and landscape you move through

     not sure anymore if this is a fear


     or a lightness of self

     you aspire to.


If section two explores loss or merger of the self, within either a landscape, another person or dreams, section three comprises still more mysterious, often surreal poems.  Illness and a sense of disorientation are evoked in ‘The Test’ and again in ‘Fog/Fox’ where “I watch Fog swallow/metre by metre the reliable matter//I thought I had figured”.  Even so, in ‘Free Night’, a wonderful “species of madness” fills speakers who “will scorch our sick selves off, turn/weakness to ash” and alongside so many troubled dreams and yearnings, this poem overflows with energy and determination. 

These are poems filled with gorgeous imagery and a magical use of language. They reward re-reading and also researching their sources, taking hold of the ear and the imagination.

Review by Thornton Rigg, Rigg’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

This haunting collection makes me pause and remember that the poetry I love is just like good architecture. Polly creates the scaffolding of an idea and then she leaves enough space between the words to allow my thoughts to hang around her ideas and then flow out and into that indefinable space of imagination.

I particularly liked the poems of her magical encounters with wild animals : rabbit, fox and deer which reminded  of Rilke‘s Unicorn Sonnet; and her Jack Daw description which, like Robert Macfarlane, seems to conjure the bird alive.

Highly recommended.


Review by Sean Barrs, Disclaimer

Friday, July 28, 2017

The lake is crystal blue, shimmering in the summer sun. It is surrounded by healthy trees on three sides. I sit on the fourth, overlooking the Nene Valley nature park with Basic Nest Architecture in my hand. It is poetry written to be read outdoors. It is a celebration of nature and all that she entails. 

Indeed, in the Wordsworthian tradition, the poem ‘Lake Fever’ evokes the importance of nature to humans. It is home; it is a refuge: it is where we are meant to be. For Wordsworth, the Lake District was the absolute epitome of this; it was his poetic muse; thus, he spent his life there writing. Atkin has followed suit, working with the Wordsworth Trust to complete her PhD studies. At the end of her lake poem, the speaker considers falling into the lake, submerging into the waters and returning to her natural home far away from artificial city life. It is an apt metaphor, one very much aligned with the romantic literary movement. The themes discussed by two hundred-year-old poetry may sound irrelevant today, but the issues it discussed are more important now than ever. It is refreshing to see new poetry written in a similar vein.

Like Atkin, the poets of the age argued for a respectful treatment of wildlife and the environment; they argued for a more eco-conscious approach to the world. The natural world is under constant threat as the human population continues to grow; it is cut back and reduced and the real tragedy of this is recognised in the words of the poet as she describes a declining world. However, 'home' has a different meaning to different people and different things. For the bee, it is the petals of a flower ready to pollinate. For the moon, it is the shadow of the sun. And for humans, it can be many things both internal and external.

Atkin takes this idea much further. As well as recognising that nature can be a nest, she also recognises that the human mind and body can be just as effective refuges. The book is divided into three parts to reflect this idea. 

The mind can become a sanctuary when it understands its place in nature, that it coexists with other creatures. The poem ‘Rabbit in Twilight’ offers a synchronised view of human and rabbit, of man and animal. No matter how far human society builds, no matter how far we distance ourselves from nature, she can, and always will creep back in. The rabbit squeezes under the wooden fence at the farmyard. The motorway, a construct of human design, is surrounded by grass verges and the creatures that come with it. Within the words there is a sense of optimism, that nature could never fully leave us despite what we may do it. Anxiety is removed with such acceptance; we go beyond our own experience and learn to understand that there is no solid divide. We are all part of one planet, of a greater eco-system: we are one.

The body, in the third part of the collection, returns to it once again. The themes are reused and reinforced in the poem “The Centre.” This time a physical experience is evoked. The blood of man, his instinct, knows exactly where he must go and how he must proceed. It directs him back to the centre in which he must go alone with no gifts, food, or drink. His presence is enough. Nature provides the rest, as he leaves “The painted world” with “dimensions all wrong, perspectiveless, tasting of nothing.” He leaves the suburban world and returns to the rural as per the Wordsworthian tradition.

The poems are varied with a plethora of styles and expression, though in each instance the words are permeated with these ideas of nature. As a collection, the poems combine to deliver these recurring themes with potency. They stress the importance of the environment and what it would mean to lose it and become completely disengaged from it. 

As incompetent government ministers are given the environmental secretary post here in the UK time and time again, and as renowned climate change deniers sit in the White House, the environment is under constant and renewed threat. Michael Grove, the current Environment Secretary, even wished to remove climate change from the national education system. 

We become mentally and physically healthier when we are outdoors, an outdoors that is just on a doorstep if we are willing to look after it and trust the protection of it to reliable and sensible people.

Basic Nest Architecture is a collection that is relevant today. By borrowing these themes from the past Atkin demonstrates not only how important arguments from the Romantic era are today but also how essential the natural world is to the human psyche. With her keen senses, she celebrates nature in all its glory. 

I highly recommend this to lovers of our planet, our home, our nest.

Review by Charanpreet Khaira, The Poetry Review

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Like many poets before them, Polly Atkin and Richard Osmond turn to nature to escape the constrictions of modern society's facile, filtered culture, but there is little conventional in the inventive - and often alarming - ways that they attempt to dismantle the structures that rule our society. 

Polly Atkin's Basic Nest Architecture considers the inexorable churning of the production-cycle behind life in a big city; the sound of "the city quietly droning", unshakeable as tinnitus, comes to represent this addictive and mindless ethos. Those trapped in city life are like worker bees, self-effacing in their commitment to a culture of need. In 'Buzz Pollination', we encounter a bee with a junkie's "hunger" seeking a fix from a bracelet it has mistaken for a flower, but finding that its baubles "gleamed inorganic". In a metaphor that distils modern society's never-ending pursuit of an unreachable goal, the bee is "tricked by the blossom / of my bracelet's fat fake pearls, their delicious / lustre". Subverting the natural image, this attempt to find sustenance in shiny things is characterised as mechanical; the speaker names the bee "Hurricane Engine", ruthlessly marking "her sources as rewarding / unrewarding". It is a grim societal vignette of an existence focused on take, take, take. 

At the centre of Atkin's poetry is the dichotomy between urban and rural life, the question of the individual's entrapment in modern society, or resistance to it. Unpicking her dense imagery, however, reveals that there is another dichotomy at work - that between male and female. The collection's epigraph, from Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee, describes how "the individual is nothing [...] her whole life is a sacrifice to the manifold". Using only feminine pronouns, the epigraph begins to reflect woman as a whole, and particularly the female voice of the poems. Like that of the bee in 'Buzz Pollination', the agency of a woman in the city is steadily diminished where productivity is prioritised above the individual. In the Troubadour Prize-winning 'Colony Collapse Disorder', the speaker's friends "visit and tell me that elsewhere is death". Referring to her new home in the countryside simply as "elsewhere", Atkin's speaker transfers the gender binary onto the two different landscapes, 'othering' the rural as women are consistently othered. Becoming a cog in the wheel of the city's life, the woman's body is effaced; she becomes an agent of the city: "electricity was life. It moved in my body, which I knew was an atom of the city". The speaker feels "information bloom in my blood", the fertile image stilted and made unnatural. As the urban body threatens to become automatic, Atkin's collection fights to reclaim a visceral existence. 

Yet the natural world is also dangerous. Death becomes a motif in Atkin's work; the speaker in 'Heron / Snow' watches a heron:

I've heard a heron

will attack a human if threatened. I imagine 

your beak a spear through my skull, and grasp 

at last the beauty of the kill. 


With nature comes acute realism; death looms, but serves to reinstate the visceral beauty missing in the mechanised urban landscape. 'Roadkill Season' explores the troubling attraction of the repulsive, hinting at our tendency to airbrush the physical reality of eating meat: "Laura popped your cooling heart / in her gob like a sweet; burst it between / her sharpening teeth". 

Relinquishing oneself to nature necessitates not only confronting its perils, but accepting disorder and chaos: "To leave the city was to leave one's memory". Abandoning it may constitute freedom, but the accompanied loss of order forces another reassessment of the self. 'Lake Fever' imagines "pitching / my whole life into the fiction and wak[ing] / mouth full of peaty freshwater". Atkin's speaker feels her body acutely here, but it has merged with her surroundings. 'Moving' imagines nature reclaiming the speaker's life through a biblical flood, "precious possessions" drifting like "old leaves"; yet as the supposed markers of identity like photographs and objects float away, the speaker is confused about whether she feels "fear / or a lightness of self / you aspire to". While nature consumes the self, this upheaval makes space for the female body, unlike the city's rigid structure, where, as in 'The Canon of Proportions', a woman's lack of a penis makes her body "incalculable" and "mutant". 

Review by Sarah Hegarty, Mslexia

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In this powerful and tender collection, Polly Atkin examines the boundaries between humans and nature, using our shared image of the nest: seen through the prisms of place, mind and body.

Several of the poems are prize-winners: in ‘Sky, falling’, the seemingly mundane and potentially worrying development of a hole in the ceiling becomes ‘a web in negative/ spinning itself’. The poet exhorts the reader to ‘think how the spheres will peer in/ as you sleep’. The fusion of human with nature requires only ‘the courage to give in to gravity’.

Atkin grew up in Nottingham and lived in London before moving to Cumbria. She alludes to this migration in ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’. She is energized by her move to ‘elsewhere’, but friends tell her it cannot work: ‘elsewhere is death’. She listens: but ‘Their eyes are blown bulbs. They rattle’; she hears ‘humming like a swarm at a distance’. It is their colony that is threatened, not hers.

The countryside offers images that enrich her work. ‘No one needs another poem about the heart as a bird’, she asserts in ‘With Feathers’. Instead of writing about ‘wrens or angels’, she imagines ‘the serrated fringes of an owlheart, silently/ shredding the chest wall, hacking up pellets/ into the abdominal cavities’.

Although it sustains her, Atkin is clear-eyed about this unforgiving world. In ‘Heron/Snow’ she wonders why the bird has waited all morning, ‘so patiently, planted/ like a post in the field in the snow’. She fears there is nothing for it to catch, but knows it will attack a human if threatened. Imagining herself as prey, the heron’s beak ‘a spear through my skull’, she reveals ‘I grasp/ at last the beauty of the kill’.

A deceptively accessible collection: revealing new layers with each reading.


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