Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches

Tag: Robert Burns

The Old Year is Dead

IMG_65722014 seems to have been a year of upheaval and uprising, of extreme highs and lows, tragedies and atrocities, of revelations great and terrible. Natural and/or man-made disasters dominated local and global news. Planes fell from the skies, flood-waters rose, diseases flourished, people around the world were killed for being who they were where they were (students; black men; female; indigenous women; transexual; disabled …). Governments and government agencies were revealed as complicit in crimes against their own people, as well as others. Those in power were revealed as abusing that power. It sometimes seems that each year brings an escalation of violence and intolerance. Does it end? Is this sense of escalation an illusion? Is this how it has always been and always will be? Does it come to a head and subside? Do we learn to live better, with the world, and each other?

My own year has been a peculiar mix of surprising successes, big changes and ongoing difficulties.

Looking at it in terms of what might be termed ‘worldly success’, this has been the best year I’ve ever had.

I started my first full-time academic job in September.
I was granted funding for a Knowledge Exchange project.
I had a great time judging the first Wordpool Poetry Competition, and was delighted to see the winning poem turned into an animation in the Blackpool illuminations.
I won the Wigtown Poetry Prize (with ‘A Short History of the Moon’), the Andrew Waterhouse Prize for Poetry in the Northern Writers’ Awards, third prize in the Poets and Players Competition (for ‘Causeway’), third prize in the Battered Moons Competition (for ‘Heron/Snow’), and was commended in the Hippocrates Prize (for ‘The Test’).
My pamphlet was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year.

At times this has seemed implausible to me. When I had to turn down appearing at the Battered Moons Awards event at the Swindon Poetry Festival, because it was on the same day as the Wigtown Festival Awards Event, which I had already agreed to be at, I really started to question how this had all arrived at once. I’ve been struggling so much for so long, in so many areas of my life, I didn’t really know how to stop struggling and bask in these moments.

Behind each of these public successes are the picked-over bones of countless private failures. This should go without saying, but it seems too easy to forget how much we don’t see of each others’ lives in this age of social media. There were dozens of jobs I didn’t get; schemes I was rejected for; poems nobody seems to have wanted. I’ve been thinking a lot about this this year, and what it means to really succeed on one’s own terms. Sometimes rejections arrive at the same time as acceptances, and you don’t know how to feel. Sometimes all the seeming successes in the world don’t appear to move you forward, and you can’t work out what is blocking your progression or how you could do anything differently. Sometimes it seems that just being you is what is blocking your progression. Sometimes you may convince yourself that there is One Thing that will change your stars. Eileen Pun and I call this the Monkey Island Hypothesis – that you can do all that is necessary in any order, but if you miss one vital component you will never get to the next level. It’s hard to escape that feeling that you’re falling behind, or under.

As I’ve written before, whenever I feel like that, I remind myself that the work itself is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if – like some of the poems that have done well for me this year – no one else appreciates that work for years. There’s a kind of pact you make with the work you do.

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The last few years have been very hard for me, in various ways. I’ve had very little income, and what I have had has been very insecure. I have suffered a lot with poor health. I’ve been in constant pain. I’ve been perpetually exhausted, in a way which is hard to explain to a healthy person.

In April I finally discovered that the devastating abdominal pain I’d been living with since November 2012 was a mixture of inflammation of my rib cage, and a broken rib. Through my own persistence, and the persistence and support of my GP and local physiotherapist, I was diagnosed, in October, with Ehlers Danlos Sydrome (EDS). I was also diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which is secondary to the Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and elements of Marfanoid body habitus. Life in my body, my peculiar body, is beginning to make sense in a way it never has before.

I had to travel down to London and pay to see an expert to get this diagnosis (which effects not only me, but my whole family, as EDS is hereditary). I’m now waiting to go to various clinics which should help me manage some of the symptoms. The diagnosis is both a tremendous relief (to know what it is, and what it is not; to know better how to help and what harms) and a peculiar burden (it is me, or I am it). I am still adjusting to knowing that I have to accept this difference, and its permanence, and all the consequences of that. ‘Normal’ is a lost concept. I will probably always be in some degree of pain. I will injure myself doing ‘ordinary’ things. I will always get more tired than an ‘ordinary’ person does from the same activities. I might never be able to stand still for more than a few moments without getting dizzy and numb and sick, as all the blood in my body sinks away from my head and my brain, and can’t pump itself back up through my too-elastic vessels. My main task for 2015 will be to learn to live with this, in and with my body, now we can see each other for what we are.

I am already learning not to feel guilty about prioritising the things I need to do to do the things I’ve agreed to do (sleep as much as possible; swim as often as possible; don’t be afraid of the judgement of others at the times these are all you can do). Some of you may be familiar with ‘Spoon Theory’. Most days for me at the moment, there is no spoon. I am concentrating on bringing some into being.

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So 2014 for me has been a year in which things have come to pass I hardly thought possible. People I’ve never met have read and enjoyed my poetry. People I greatly admire have read and rated my poetry. I have a steady income going forward for a reasonably steady period. Moreover, I have been given the key to unlocking central mysteries of my own life, and those of my family.

There’s a lot of things I feel I’ve been failing at though. I don’t see my friends enough. I don’t even contact my friends enough. I’m behind with all kinds of writing and behind with all kinds of reading. I don’t get to as many events as I’d like to, and I sleep through a lot of life. Most of the time, I’m barely keeping nose above surface.

I’m going into 2015 with some fear and trepidation (and a persistent chest infection), but also more genuine hope than I’ve been able to admit to for a long time. I’ll do what I can on my part – concentrate on what I believe matters most – and hope – keep hoping – that this concentration matters. I hope for the same for all of you. For your wishes and work to matter. For your wishes to work.

I wrote this poem, ‘Forecast’, on New Year’s Day 2013. In February last year it was engraved on a window of the Globe Inn in Dumfries, another fabulous event in my poetry year, that I have previously written about here. I knew when I wrote it something was shifting, but it took so long, so long to manifest as material change. This New Year’s Day, it hasn’t stopped raining, and all bodies in the house slept peacefully into the dark afternoon. Despite that, I think the forecast works as well today.

Forecast

Last night the barometer predicted CHANGE
the stormy tail of the year passing over.
Midnight threw up stars and a 2/3
moon, scattered as hailstones after.

New year’s day sailed in as a fringe
of spring on a sculling cloud, word
from an unseen sun, blue displacing
blank, as from a vacuum chamber.

One swift shower. One magpie etching
spirals in the lightening air. Now
its partner, binary tail declaring
the arrow’s twitch to Fair.

 

The Old Year is dead. Long live the New Year.

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On Transparency and Self-Reflection

This week I went back up to Dumfries to see my window poem, which has just been installed in the upper landing of the Globe Inn, next to the Burns Room with its historical etchings.

'Forecast' at the Globe Inn, Dumfries

I love the way the text is mediated by the transparency and reflective qualities of the glass.

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Next door, Hugh Bryden showed us Burns’ original etchings (and those of some followers) in the thick, antique glass.

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Burns seems to have had quite a penchant for writing on glass of all kinds. He was given a diamond stylus by James Cunninghamme, the Earl of Glencairn, and used it to make his mark on windows across Scotland, and several glasses. Some of these etchings got him in trouble at the time, either for their content, or for the vandalistic nature of the act.

In Dumfries’ Burns’ House Museum, his signature in an upstairs window is encased by a brass plaque, presumably to stop tourists from adding their own monikers, as they have on the adjoining panes.

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(I call this ‘Self Portrait in Burns’ Signature’)

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I’m putting a diamond stylus on my Birthday and Christmas lists but not expecting much.

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.

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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?