Guest Post – Polly Atkin: On Co-Tenancy 

In Much With Body I wanted to write into and around the relationship between us – as individuals, as humans – and the ecosystems we live in. I wanted explore to what Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara call the ‘contingency between environments and bodies’ that is central to disability poetics, with a focus on the particular environment I have made my home.[1] In many ways this is an extension of conversations begun in my previous collection, Basic Nest Architecture, which revolve around questions of belonging, of location and dislocation, of co-habitation, of what it is to live in a sick body in an ailing world. I’ve always found it difficult to separate myself from my environment, to draw a clear line or apprehend a solid barrier between me and the rest of the world, to be certain what is internal or external. This sense of permeability, coupled with a complicated sense of bodily risk, determines all of my encounters with the world, all of my movements through it.

Photo of a deer on a hillside.

I wanted to bring that sense of permeability into these poems – from those drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydal Journals, that place rain and pain in parallel, both leaching in an out of the body – to the poems about the frogs and toads who come into our house every summer. We are none of us able to call ourself separate from one another.

Photo of a frog

There is a kind of eco-poetry, and a broader kind of nature writing, that wants to remove the human observer from the observation, to cut out the body of the writer from the writing. It sees the human as degrading the nonhuman, as distracting, diverting essential attention. I can’t help seeing this tendency in nature writing to blot out the body of the writer as coupled to the tendency Virginia Woolf writes about in her essay ‘On Being Ill’ to present the body as a clear pane of glass to see the world through. I am not a clear pane of glass. My noisy, interrupting body never lets me forget its presence. As Woolf writes, ‘all day, all night, the body intervenes’. To me the relationship between the intervening body and the other outside is the poem. To pretend otherwise is the distraction.

Photo of an owl amongst the branches of a tree.

I wanted to bring the intervention of the body into the foreground of these poems, whether they are centred on an encounter with a deer, or an owl that won’t be photographed, or a disappearing hospital, or the body’s internal machinations. I cannot write an owl, but I can write myself observing an owl, what observing it in my body gives me, what the co-presence of our bodies in the same space does, what it changes, what it enables. I wanted to write about co-habitation, about co-tenancy of a shared home, whether that is a woodland, society, or our bodies. Luckily for me, my co-tenants were obliging.

Polly Atkin

This cover shows a painting of a swimmer floating on her back in a blue green lake.

Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet Polly Atkin. The beauty of the Lake District is both balm and mirror, refracting pain and also soothing it with distraction. Much of the landscape is lakescape, giving the book a watery feel, the author’s wild swimming being just one kind of immersion. There is also a distinct link with the past in a central section of found poems taken from transcripts of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, from a period late in her life when she was often ill. In common with the works of the Wordsworths, these poems share a quality of the metaphysical sublime. Their reverence for the natural world is an uneasy awe, contingent upon knowledge of our fragility and mortality.

Polly Atkin’s latest collection Much With Body is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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[1] Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, ‘Introduction’, in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco- Crip Theory, ed by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), p.1.