Secular Magic: Polly Atkin

The back cover of Polly Atkin’s Shadow Dispatches lists eleven competitions she has variously won, placed in or been shortlisted for – and that’s not counting the Mslexia pamphlet competition in which Shadow Dispatches itself scooped first prize. In all, an impressive twelve awards referenced on one book cover. Although this isn’t a guarantee that the poems inside will be good (some of the poems that win competitions are wonderful; others are wonderfully well-adapted to winning competitions), it does raise serious expectations. And Atkin doesn’t disappoint.

Here are the closing stanzas of “Hermes Enodios”:

You raise your arm as if to speak
or signal the direction you mean to take.
All rise to follow. You are the gate

between here and anywhere. All must pass through,
and only you know how to get where we’re going.
You will take our best herds and best hearts when you go.

This morning, a fresh fall of feathers in the yard.
This evening, a swinging door, slamming.

There’s a lot going on here. The sound patterning is hypnotic (as it is throughout the book), with perfectly-judged assonance binding stanza to stanza, line to line. The poem is one of five in the collection addressed either to mythical gods or to animals with mythical significance (each of them poised beautifully between apostrophe and incantation). Here (as in the earlier “Potnia Theron”) Atkin invokes a classical deity in a way that blurs our world and theirs, neither fetishizing the mythic elements nor underplaying them. We are left unsure if the poems treat Hermes and Artemis as symbols, as metaphors or as not-quite-believed-in supernatural beings. It would be a foolish reader who tried to resolve that ambiguity.

Atkin’s ear for rhythm is as sharp as her ear for vowel music. She knows instinctively when to leave the discursive iambs alone and when to electrify them with dactyls and anapaests; when to let stresses fade to the calm of speech and when to intensify them with near-rhyme and assonance.

Unless you’re reading this in a public place (or perhaps even if you are) I’d urge you to sound the following lines from “Mute” aloud:

No love, no song at all. Ugly
as a god you crawl from the silted shore,

grotesque, hissing. We’d heard one night
you learnt the steps by moonlight, climbed
to the door of the hut and stopped, shocked

by your transformation, too almost human.
But there was no prince in you, no, no royalty.
Close up, only the leprous knob

on your forehead, your mark of longevity, bulbous,
crackled old leather, a slow black slug.

I could happily lose myself in music like this all day (and that night/moonlight might be the best-judged internal rhyme I’ve heard all year).

There’s something of the unheimlich about many of the poems in this book. Forces from the natural world refuse to let us sink into comfort or complacency: “a dozen translucent silvery worms / had seeded themselves in my feet”; “fluid // foxes pouring through the keyholes of doors”; “A web in negative / spinning itself”; “Your hoot / is innocence lost, is a rhyme never spoken”.

I can’t get the following lines from “Jay” out of my head, and in one light they embody many of the wider book’s themes in miniature:

You are not an oracle,

or a key to the sky.
But in my mind

when I think of your body.
you’re not so much bird –

hollow relic –
as light.

Having carried Shadow Dispatches around everywhere for the past two weeks I’m half-convinced these aren’t really poems at all, but closer to secular magic spells or incantations from the deep unconscious. Whatever they are, it’s a wonderful book.

Shadow Dispatches, Polly Atkin, Seren, 2013

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