It doesn’t take long to get a steady fix on Polly Atkin’s new poetry collection, With Invisible Rain.
In this pamphlet from New Walk Editions, she brings together twelve poems. Some of them are part-autobiographical, exploring the subject of pain and her treatment for Genetic Haemochromatosis, a disorder which causes the body to absorb too much iron from the diet. The treatment for this condition is the regular removal of blood, helping to remove excess iron from the body. Atkin compares the condition to living in a mansion and filling every inch of space with scrap like an obsessive hoarder.
One poem describes the feel of the standard-issue hospital plastic pillowcase beneath her head, and the wretchedness she depicts is beautifully conveyed. Along with her own struggle, Atkin draws on James Hilton’s The Mystery of Pain: A Book for the Sorrowful, Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals, and Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill.
These poems are not gentle - each one changes in pressure and colour, leaving a stark sense of pain. The dislocation of the body, the soreness of the limbs are at times intensely portrayed.
You may find yourself wondering why you would read this collection given this intensity, but these are also poems of purity. After all, what can be purer than rain? Almost everything here is seen through cloud and rain, always taking the reader to a deeper level of affliction. Branches snap against skin, arms are pinned down, the body refuses its own blood. In one poem, Atkin writes that she “cannot control it.” That is what invisible rain is all about, the uncontrollable. This pamphlet expresses in twenty-seven pages what some books might take 400 pages to convey. It is a profound instance of a gifted poet at the top of her game.
About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.
Ever since Matthew Arnold heard on Dover Beach the Sea of Faith’s ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ there has been a strand of British poetry that hears in the sea a sense of loss. No doubt this is tied up with British history on a national scale, and its loss of naval power. But as Carl Jung says, ‘the psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation’: and there is personal loss in Arnold’s poem, just as there is in Alan Jenkins’s remarkable and highly original pamphlet of poems, Tidemarks.
In the pamphlet, Jenkins looks back from maturity on a lost youth spent (and misspent) on or near the water. This is poetry of nostalgia – but barbed, naughty, witty, grotesque nostalgia, a Rabelaisian Swallows and Amazons. The narrator can ‘hear whispers far below / The river’s susurrating flow,’ which tell him it is
“Too late … to take the helm,
To master that unruly realm
Your father loved, who often sat
With Conrad, Forester, Marryat,
With tales of HMS Kelly or
The Compass Rose.”
‘You signed up for rum, bum and the lash,’ declares one ‘long-dead master-mariner’ to the narrator, but instead ‘you heard the south sing o’er the land at Fairlight and at Ore / So you affected Oxford bags, the elbow-patches pansies wore // And learned to lisp in numbers.’
If these long-dead voices haunt the narrator, so do their associated places, haunts. Indeed, some of the poems mark attempts to return to the old haunts, as if to a time before the ‘elbow-patches’ of Oxford took over – to the old seashores, harbours, boats:
I knew the path, the promenade, the lanes,
The park where a stone Victoria frowned …
Heaps of rotted feathers, stinking bladderwrack,
Gull-shit and tar-stains, and the intimate whiff
In broken shells. Why had I come back? …
… aged nine, I watched a little girl,
Sea-water shining on her sun-browned skin
As she ran shrieking in the shallows’ sudsy foam,
Ran shrieking up to me; I’m going in!
A last-swim sadness, last day before home …
Half a lifetime later I still clutched it,
That gritty towel, arms crossed on my chest
For burial at sea.
Like a maritime John Clare, Jenkins’s narrator tries to find the old places, but now ‘No-one was waiting on the path’ – the girl is gone, and the ‘gritty towel’ is buried at sea.
Other poems attempt to reclaim the past by imagining alternative paths the narrator might have taken – that is, by attempting to retrace ‘the sea-roads not taken,’ half a lifetime earlier, in moments of ‘What if What if What if What if What if.’ In the end, though, the mournful conclusion is that ‘bridges [have been] burnt,’ and it is ‘Too late now’:
“Too late now,
To go to him and show him how
Your hard-learned seamanship has brought
Three stripes, a wife in every port –
Or even one wife, son or daughter –
A man’s life, on or off the water!”
The poems poignantly suggest that it is not just too late for the narrator, but also more generally for the kind of life he recalls. The narrator’s personal sense of loss is connected to a more general loss: ‘Everything you are and care for [is] standing ready to be scrapped // Like Ark Royal and half the fleet.’ In place of the Ark Royal, half the fleet, ‘the harbour at Rangoon … / Trafalgar, circumnavigation,’ now stands a vacuous consumerist fantasy:
Instead, I was next to someone’s super-yacht,
motionless behind its oil-rich haze of heat –
… a super-model, fresh from her shoot in Casablanca
… on the sun-deck inviting him to eat
in a tone that acknowledged frankly how boring
it all was …
and everything I’d loved was up for sale.
As Jung and Arnold might expect, the loss here is simultaneously that of an individual and of a nation: a maritime past – vibrant, riotous, violent, seedy, Rabelaisian – has been lost to both narrator and coastal community. Jenkins's poems are by no means nostalgic for a lost imperialistic naval history, but rather for a seafaring way of life which has been superseded by a millionaire’s boredom.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.