Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches

Tag: Bone Song

Shunting in reverse through the steps of a dance/nobody else can join in with.

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put together in my head, but after several years of sending it out to various places and getting it sent back it got superseded.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.


Tree Dreams

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


sunday morning

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.



Windows for Burns.

Full of melancholy, the Wordsworth party recite Burns’ poetry over his grave in what feels to them a fitting ceremony of remembrance. The party are struck by the view of their native mountains from Burns Country, and the recital (Burns works), the landscape, the physical presence of the corpse, and the feeling of neighbourliness become interlinked in Wordsworth’s mind.

Dorothy writes: ‘These lines recurred to William’s Memory, and we talked of Burns, and of the prospect he must have had, perhaps from his own door, of Skiddaw and his companions […] we might have been personally known to each other, and he have looked upon those objects with more pleasure for our sakes.’
(‘Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland’, August 18th, 1803).

Extract from ”A kind of Second Life’: Narrating the Wordsworthian Grave’ a paper I gave at the Wordsworth Summer Conference, 2013.

This is the third year that contemporary poems have been displayed on the windows of the Globe Inn, and Coach and Horses Inn, in Dumfries, around Burns’ Night. The Burns Windows Project was conceived by Dumfrieshire artist-poet Hugh Bryden of Roncadora Press, and scholar Dave Borthwick (who works on Contemporary Poetry, Scottish Literature and Ecocriticism), as a way to both commemorate and reinvigorate Burns’ own etchings on the windows of the Globe. The aim was to show poetry and Burns’ heritage were both alive and well in Dumfries and beyond.






Last year, I was asked to write a review of the project for The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies website. From the review, you might get an idea of how many of my passions intersect with this project – a scholarly concern with literary tourism and how literary places become significant sites, muddled up with interest in placing contemporary poetry in the community; placing contemporary poetry in sites of historical literary significance; poetry as inscription/artefact/art.

What might not be clear is my personal attachment to Dumfries. My beloved maternal grandfather, Nicky Muir, was born in Dumfries, and was deeply proud of the Burns’ connection. He grew up on the street leading to Burns’ grave.  When he married my grandmother, Peggy, they made their home in Eastriggs, where I spent many happy visits. My visit to Dumfries to see the Burns’ windows last year was the first time I had spent a day there since my Grandmother died. It was a good way to revisit.

Dorothy Wordsworth was not impressed with Dumfries in 1803. As a growing commercial town it seemed particularly unfitting:

We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground. […] there is no thought surviving in connexion with Burns’s daily life that is not heart-depressing.

Eastriggs and Dumfries both appear, albeit un-named, in my first pamphlet ‘bone song’, in ‘Green Apples’, a poem which marked ten years passing since my Grandmother’s death in the Dumfries Infirmary:

Green Apples

These are the things I remember from that summer:
the cloying scent of the Tendre Poison I was given for my birthday,
bought on the ferry, duty-free, before we drove to Tuscany,

before the stammered phone-call brought the two of us back early,
not home, but in-between somewhere, my mother’s childhood country,
where we filled the house with living but it already echoed, empty,

where I slept like a wolf in granny’s bed and ate granny-smith apples.
These are the things I remember: the cold blue sky of a Scottish summer
the greyness of the streets, a thick pink quilt, a checked orange dress,

green hospital walls and green apples like the green hills of Tuscany
like the hospital grounds, my perfume bottle, green like the emerald city,
and her face, her face so strange, white like the white apple flesh.

Before Christmas, I found out that my poem ‘Forecast’, displayed as part of last year’s Burns Windows Project, had been chosen to be this year’s permanent addition to the Globe. It’s a very strange thing to think of my words being etched onto glass and installed in such a site of literary significance. Even stranger to wonder what my grandparents would’ve made of it. Maybe it’s particularly fitting that one of Burns’ own verses was praising the charms of a long-dead Polly.

Burns' verses to Lovely Polly Stewart

Burns’ verses to Lovely Polly Stewart on the windows of the Globe Inn

So today, I been sitting on my side of the mountains in Wordsworth Country, and thinking of Burns, Dumfries, and my own Dumfrieshire antecedents (Blacklocks and Muirs, mostly stone masons and farm-workers). I’ve been thinking particularly about neighbourliness, poetry, place and belonging, and where and how these things intersect.

If you can get to Dumfries to see the poems displayed, do. There is something magic about the poems flickering in the pub windows; the words read through the reflections. If you can’t, why not order Roncadora’s beautiful hand-stitched pamphlet of last year’s window poems?