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Much With Body

Polly Atkin
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 18, 2021
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Longlisted for the Laurel Prize 2022

Poetry Book Society Winter Selection 2021


Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet Polly Atkin. The beauty of the Lake District is both balm and mirror, refracting pain and also soothing it with distraction: unusual descriptions of frogs, birds, a great stag that ‘you will not see’. Much of the landscape is lakescape, giving the book a watery feel, the author’s wild swimming being just one kind of immersion. There is also a distinct link with the past in a central section of found poems taken from transcripts of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, from a period late in her life when she was often ill. In common with the works of the Wordsworths, these poems share a quality of the metaphysical sublime. Their reverence for the natural world is an uneasy awe, contingent upon knowledge of our fragility and mortality.


“These brilliant poems authentically offer the psychogeography of a known and lived landscape from the common but less-represented perspective of a body that is in many ways ‘queer’ to the ableism and gendering of ‘nature writing’. It is eager and ferociously appetitive about embodiment, poetics, and place, taking the long view: engaging with local tradition (Dorothy Wordsworth) and contemporary visions of interest (ecopoetics, disability writing). Readers will appreciate a poet with a rare gift of humour: the ‘tiny frogs’ chased in ‘Habitats’; the funny but chilling litany of horror traditions in ‘Borders Gothic’. This is serious play indeed.” – Vahni Capildeo

“Polly Atkin writes daring, compelling poems. This new collection, rooted in the notion of the body as ‘Ludicrous, unrepeatable myth’ crackles with searing insight into what it means when a person’s own flesh and bones create in landscapes ‘unpaths, unlines / of desire’. Much With Body is an important book that spotlights at last difficult and nuanced experiences so often made invisible by the actions of enabled bodies. I urge you to read it.” – John McCullough


Review by Isobel Roach, Wales Arts Review

Friday, February 25, 2022

Poetry and nature have enjoyed a centuries-long connection; so much so that when we’re asked to picture a poet, one might imagine a Romantic, wind-tossed William Wordsworth looking out inquisitively over the wild landscape of the Lake District. The realm of nature is the bread and butter of the poet, even in the brave new world of the 2020s, and Polly Atkin’s collection Much With Body is a sublime and skilful iteration of this time-honoured poetic practice. Of course, all the best nature poetry is about much more than just the splendour of flora and fauna, mountains and lakes; look deeper into each of Atkin’s poems and you’ll find a thoughtful, introspective reflection on the self. Much With Body is an exploration of pain and illness refracted through the geographical lens of the Lake District, and the often overlooked writings of Dorothy Wordsworth.

Atkin’s engagement with nature is complex and, at times, ambiguous. The capacity for the natural world to heal and soothe our ailments is a consistent theme throughout the collection, but the poet retains an awareness of nature’s fierce unknowability. The reader is drawn into Atkin’s spiritual wild world with the opening poem ‘Full Wolf Moon’ – one of the strongest pieces in the collection – writing of ‘rain drops as stars’ that appear as ‘The matted pelt of the wolf night’. This imagery, whilst beautiful, is emblematic of Much With Body’s vision of the Lake District as sentient, powerful, and animalistic. There is solace and wisdom to be found in this mythical landscape, its moon ‘supersized with probability’, but nature is a force that cannot always be understood or relied upon. In ‘Charismatic Animals’, Atkin tackles this head on, admitting that ‘The poet is guilty of magical thinking, reads each tip of the barn owl’s head as a message’. The small wonders of the animal world can quickly become unmanageable, as in ‘Habitats’, a poem that earned Atkin third place in the Rialto Nature and Place Poetry Competition (2017). Memorable for its uniqueness, this poem chronicles a futile struggle to keep an army of tiny frogs out of the speaker’s house. Despite all efforts to save the frogs and return them to their true habitat, Atkin is forced to realise that ‘this is their truth’; it is impossible to hold back the wilful tide of nature. 

As the collection’s title would suggest, the body features heavily in Atkin’s poetry. Struggles with health and chronic pain proliferate the pages of Much With Body, and the author is alternatively locked within her own body or disconnected from it. In ‘Unwalking’, Atkin writes that the body is ‘what I cannot undiscover, unhook myself from, slip my arms out from like a rucksack’. Even nature is inescapably bodied with mountains appearing as ‘scars on the skin of the land […] formed out of pain’. Landscape is sympathetic to sickness – or perhaps it is more true to say that in sickness, the poet is sympathetic to the land. In ‘Dark Hedges/Barbed Wire’, Atkin laments ‘I thought they were like me, sick with invasion, rust in our sap’. But this heaviness of body and pain is at time countered by a dissociation from identity; in nature, Atkin can separate her own experiences from herself, turning to second person with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness (‘You’re thinking about yourself divested of the self again’).

Much With Body’s most dynamic works of poetry can be found in the middle section of the book. Departing from autobiographical reflection, Atkin turns to the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth to create a handful of fascinating found poetry. This diversion is not jarring, nor does it feel out of place amidst the other poems in the collection. Atkin zeroes in on Dorothy’s own experience with sickness and poor health, as well as her constant observations of rain. ‘Dorothy’s Rain’ pieces together an extensive poem – three pages long – that is oppressive in its account of drizzly, forbidding weather. We feel as trapped and forlorn as Dorothy would have. ‘Much With Body’, the poem for which the collection is titled, brings Dorothy and her ailments to life, focussing on bodily experiences and pain. A line is drawn between the poet and Dorothy; a further line is drawn between these two women and the miraculous, forbidding landscape of the Lake District. Much With Body is a collection that exposes the closeness we share with the natural world, and is packed with insights not to be missed.

Review by Megan Fernandes, Poetry Foundation

Sunday, February 20, 2022

“I am all sensibility,” declares the speaker in Polly Atkin’s collection of poems, Much With Body. As we learn, this sensibility includes a seemingly microscopic vision and an almost supernatural capacity to feel, as Atkin moves through the world with chronic illness and with the ability to detect the faintest elevation of the ground or pressure of gravity around her. 

Atkin takes care to highlight the smallest dramas of a sick person’s day, while also drawing our attention to a richness of experience, as in the poem “Isolation Blessing,” whose speaker only travels “between the bedroom and living room, living room / and bathroom, bathroom and kitchen, kitchen / and garden,” yet manages, nonetheless, to visit herons and frogs and to find a cross-species companionship within their small radius. An entirely new ecology becomes enlivened through her gaze. 

But Atkin complicates what it means to inhabit an ill body and her poems meditate on a core aspect of being sick, which is the feeling of waiting: Waiting for things to change. Waiting to feel a bit better. There is a thesis on patience within poems like “Hunting the Stag,” in which we learn “The stag doesn’t visit because you want him to. It doesn’t work like that.” These issues are addressed more explicitly in “Unwalking”:

     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?

In the same poem, Atkin writes that the “untrained observer” might look upon the speaker and see the “dead planet of me.” Later she writes: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I— / I couldn’t travel either of them.” Yet in these poems, the line itself becomes a point of travel, not just a stream of thinking. The “horizon grows wider,” we chase “the train of a comet,” and we learn that the speaker’s “breath got lost in the post.” These poems don’t sit still and neither does the speaker—or, for that matter, the reader. Instead, we are caught in the motion of Atkin’s stunning imagination, again and again. 

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Book Balm recommendation: Read to remind yourself to pause and pay attention to your natural surroundings.

From frogs and toads ambling into her home to the herons glimpsed nearby to the imposed quieter times of lockdown, Much with body by Polly Atkin is a reminder to take a breath, open your eyes and observe.

In 'Lakeclean', Atkin immerses us in the magic of wild swimming. The lines are dizzyingly visual and elemental, while hinting at the freedom and physical relief offered fleetingly in water, as opposed to time spent on land. Atkin alludes to the joy of  being: “released from the tyranny of gravity”, dwelling “in transparency”, and sweeping “mountains aside with our arms without wincing.”

'Notes from a transect' offers series of determinedly hopeful snippets, each of which works as a standalone poem. In 'What’s Under Your Feet' she records: “One school wins a visit from a scientist. When she asks/ does anyone have wildlife stories to share?/ the whole school put up their hands.” In 'Windows' we glimpse “Those lightless days when pain/ keeps you in, under, and the feeder/ at the window is the only source of movement/ you count birds.”

The book is divided into three parts, with the poet’s passion for a wide variety of wildlife highlighted in the first section, found poetry plucked from Dorothy Wordsworth’s late-life diaries in the centre (a soothingly conversational focus on rain, rain and more rain), followed by a deeper dig into the poet’s chronic illness in the final third.

Yet each of the poems is threaded through with the natural wonder of the Lake District, with lines that take the seemingly small and encompass within it an entire universe. For instance, in 'Charismatic Animals' a nearby lake is described as a grandmother: “She hides galaxies in her core with her gilly heart/ as huge and heavy as a moon.”

In 'Mountain', we’re reminded that geological formations are evidence of early trauma: “It says, this is where it hurt,/ once, a long time ago. Earth/ could have forgotten. Stone remembers.” It’s jolted me to read those lines and realise how easily I take hilltops for granted without considering the violence they resulted from.

In the final section, 'Epiphany Insomnia' caught me on hooks so distinct and recognisable that I almost experienced Atkin’s pain. “We are quarantined/ somewhere between a vision state and an open-edged dream.” The word choices are succinct and visceral – I feel that open-edge could spill over into waking hours.

In Paper Pellets, Atkin is asked about her book, and she wonders: “do they mean/ the book [I’m] writing or the one in which [I] live?”

Low ripples of laughter are delivered throughout too: “the cat/ unsettled” by the insomniac poet’s “catlike watchfulness”; the fact that leeches “leave a bitemark like a peace sign.”

Refreshingly, the poet doesn’t take herself too seriously, but seems instead to invite us to join her in marvelling at nature’s beautiful oddities, including our unknowable selves.

Review by Pat Edwards, London Grip

Saturday, December 4, 2021

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.

Review by Caroline Bracken, Nation.Cymru

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Polly Atkin’s second collection Much With Body is one to spend time with. What makes it so brilliant are the layers in the poems which reveal themselves over several readings. For example ‘Hunting the Stag’ can be read as a nature poem, human interference in the ecosystem, limitations and longing. It also reads as an ars poetica:

‘He is higher than you can walk today, or deeper.
You cannot make him come to you.
Not the great stag with his rustling mane not even
the small roe with his sapling antlers.’

Atkin is a poet in full control of language and the line, her poems command the page so the reader knows they are in safe hands. No more so than in ‘Dark Hedges/Barbed Wire’:

‘Dark hedges are oozing, weeping spikes of rust, twists of rust push
through their skin like fences are meant to. Dark hedges
cry sticky dark tears, manifest sore red letters on their hivey skin’

There are touches of humour throughout the collection which is rare in poetry and hard to do well but Atkin does it so well, as in ‘Notes from a transect’: ‘There are people against the beaver. They never/ specify which beaver.’ It takes a great poet to go from writing an experimental poem ‘Rain’ which is part of a sequence of found poems from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals to a poem called ‘Your ex-first-love is an internet guru, and this is what he says’. Fabulous. This collection is a keeper, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review by Mab Jones, Buzz Magazine

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Much With Body (Seren, price: £9.99) subsumes the reader into the Lake District, with many of the poems possessing a strong watery feel. Even out of the lakes themselves, there are ponds, rain, veins (those liquid-carrying inlets), and ‘wet’ creatures such as frogs and leeches. Additionally, there are bears and brambles, because Atkin is a fine observer of nature in all its forms, but the fluidity and fluency of the language, and that solvent sense, flows throughout.

A central section takes the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth and repurposes her prose to make some very interesting poems indeed – it’s the diarist’s 250th birthday this year, so her work is very timely right now – whilst others focus on Atkin’s own observations, imaginative ideas, and experiences. There is clearly a philosophical mind behind these poems, but Much With Body is modern and approachable, with an undercurrent of irony evident in poems like Mountain in which the poet makes a play on the word ‘fell’. There is also some vehemence, evident in those poems addressing illness, ableism, and the body, as in the piece ‘Sick Girl Theory’. In all, a powerfully potent reading experience.

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