This week I got the news that a poem of mine, ‘Begin’, was chosen as one of the runners-up for this year’s Fish Poetry Prize, judged by Nick Laird.
This is what he says about it –
Begin by Polly Atkin
The poem had impressive, confident turns, and I admired the way its syntax broke across its line endings. It had certain phrases that I liked too – ‘the bluetime when everyone sleeps’.
‘Begin’ will be included in the Fish Anthology, which I’m really pleased about. I wrote it towards the end of my MA year, although I think it changed a little after some further redrafting in 2008. In many ways the poem is about mistrusting memory, so I’m going to leave this recall vague. For a long time I’d thought of it as being quite essential to the imaginary collection I had put together in my head, but after several years of sending it out to various places and getting it sent back it got superseded. I went back to it this year because it suddenly felt very pertinent again.
The summer I turned fifteen I started to suffer from strange dizzy spells. I remember standing on a famous bridge in Italy rubbing the famous brass nose of a famous statue of a wild boar, and feeling like the world just fell away from me like a piece of stage scenery. Nothing was quite the same after that.
I had tonsillitis for the best part of a year and a half and had my tonsils removed and didn’t get better. I had a lot of tests. I documented ‘feelings of unreality’ in journals. Frightening possibilities were raised, then discounted. I dislocated my knee and fell and broke my elbow and forgot how to sleep. I got sicker and sicker and thinner and thinner. I was sent to CBT and got diverted to an anorexia specialist, because he’d ‘treated thirteen girls with Anorexia from my school’. I went to a nutritionalist who told me to avoid yeast and sugar. I swam. I tried to Be Normal. I got used to seeing the sky as flecks of moving matter. This is what ‘Begin’ tries to approach. The months when I thought I might be dying, or mad, or both.
This summer that summer when it really began is twenty years ago. I still have to tell myself every day to get up, to shake out my limbs, to keep going, that this is – and always is – where it begins. But I know now what all this meant, in a way I didn’t ten years ago when I was trying to face it in small ways for the first time in my poetry. I now know all my mystery symptoms were products of my hypermobile body, of that defect in my collagen that effects how everything works, but which no one recognised. I can’t undo all that time when no one saw me or believed me, including, at times, myself. But I can speak about it.
May is Ehlers Danlos Awareness Month. I’ve been wanting to write something about it – for it? – but couldn’t work out how or what. Do I try and explain what it is like to live with it? Do I try and explain why it’s important to try and explain?
One of the amazing things I’ve found out since my diagnosis is that – for a supposedly rare disease – there are a remarkable number of poets with EDS. I hope that together we might be able to change the narratives on EDS, so that fewer people have to go through the years of misunderstanding and mistreatment that I, and many others, have done.
So I thought I’d share a few others poems I wrote during that MA year, which perhaps express how it has been for me to live in an Ehlers Danlos body in a much clearer way that I feel I can do in prose. I’ve been writing about it much more consciously in the last few years. But it is only looking back at these poems now, knowing what I now know about the breadth of my condition, that I understand how much I was always really writing about it. I didn’t know, for example, the diagnostic significance of my narrow high-arched, over-crowded mouth, how it was directly connected to my long arms, my tumbling knee-caps, my pain – and yet it’s there in the poems. These poem are all in my first pamphlet ‘bone song’.
The Shuffle Tap Shuffle
She sings a song to bring herself home,
counting the bars to the end of her street,
she moves her feet in time to the music,
dream-scenes the bone-cracking walk as a dance
where shuffle tap shuffle the drag is deliberate,
the thick-blooded leaden-limbs part of the act,
where heel toe sliiiiide the slabs on the pavement
are dance pads with neon touch-sensitive lights,
and she step stamps the beat on them, brushes a pause,
timestep and ball-change she pirouettes, glides
to a note-perfect finish, expertly timed
so the claps start to come as she reaches the door,
fumbles the key in, trips into the hall
and the held last note fills the drum of the house
as she slumps to a rest like a curtsey, a bow,
a puppet unstrung, on the floor.
If she holds her twig-brittle finger bones tight
in a fist, her knuckle bones rise up white;
stub-buds of new limbs, pressing her skin.
They hover close, under the surface, wait
for a signal, trigger. They itch for the light
and to move in it, grow to it, drink it all in.
They’re greedy. She glimpses their dreams some nights,
dreams of branches, galaxies wide,
of fruit like planets, seeds like suns.
She frisks herself for gnarls and twists,
reads each bone-knot as a sign, its time
to change, the spring has come;
they shoot from her like splinters, scythes,
leave her skin-split like a pip and rise rise rise
I expect it is only last night’s drinks
taking their sunday morning bow,
this way I feel; almost as though
I’m growing backwards,
shunting in reverse through the steps of a dance
nobody else can join in with.
It is a sad dance, but happy too;
no one could move their feet that way
if they were not glad to be dancing.
I jerk, dip, as the music directs,
travelling the length of the past, the possible,
in strange slow arcs like broken ripples
raising my arms, stroking the ground.
It is sunday morning. Another week gone.
It all will be gone by evening.
Her teeth were rows of sarsen stones
fixed in an arc like a half-set sun,
a henge that would fit in the dip of a palm
but heavy, too heavy to carry for long.
He took the weight. She told the hurt
of fissures and fault-lines, sinking earth,
of fractures, loosenings, crumblings apart.
He ran one finger over the curve
and found himself lost amongst cairns and tors,
ruined palaces, mounds of bones:
a thousand things one human mouth
could never hold or own.
Weary, he pressed them back into place
and closed the ground of her face.