Much With Body - Polly Atkin

Much With Body – Polly Atkin | Poetry

Isobel Roach reviews Much With Body by Polly Atkin, examining the poet’s thoughtful revival of poetry with a Romantic sensibility. 

Poetry and nature have enjoyed a centuries-long connection; so much so that when we’re asked to picture a poet, one might imagine a Romantic, wind-tossed William Wordsworth looking out inquisitively over the wild landscape of the Lake District. The realm of nature is the bread and butter of the poet, even in the brave new world of the 2020s, and Polly Atkin’s collection Much With Body is a sublime and skilful iteration of this time-honoured poetic practice. Of course, all the best nature poetry is about much more than just the splendour of flora and fauna, mountains and lakes; look deeper into each of Atkin’s poems and you’ll find a thoughtful, introspective reflection on the self. Much With Body is an exploration of pain and illness refracted through the geographical lens of the Lake District, and the often overlooked writings of Dorothy Wordsworth.

Atkin’s engagement with nature is complex and, at times, ambiguous. The capacity for the natural world to heal and soothe our ailments is a consistent theme throughout the collection, but the poet retains an awareness of nature’s fierce unknowability. The reader is drawn into Atkin’s spiritual wild world with the opening poem ‘Full Wolf Moon’ – one of the strongest pieces in the collection – writing of ‘rain drops as stars’ that appear as ‘The matted pelt of the wolf night’. This imagery, whilst beautiful, is emblematic of Much With Body’s vision of the Lake District as sentient, powerful, and animalistic. There is solace and wisdom to be found in this mythical landscape, its moon ‘supersized with probability’, but nature is a force that cannot always be understood or relied upon. In ‘Charismatic Animals’, Atkin tackles this head on, admitting that ‘The poet is guilty of magical thinking, reads each tip of the barn owl’s head as a message’. The small wonders of the animal world can quickly become unmanageable, as in ‘Habitats’, a poem that earned Atkin third place in the Rialto Nature and Place Poetry Competition (2017). Memorable for its uniqueness, this poem chronicles a futile struggle to keep an army of tiny frogs out of the speaker’s house. Despite all efforts to save the frogs and return them to their true habitat, Atkin is forced to realise that ‘this is their truth’; it is impossible to hold back the wilful tide of nature. 

As the collection’s title would suggest, the body features heavily in Atkin’s poetry. Struggles with health and chronic pain proliferate the pages of Much With Body, and the author is alternatively locked within her own body or disconnected from it. In ‘Unwalking’, Atkin writes that the body is ‘what I cannot undiscover, unhook myself from, slip my arms out from like a rucksack’. Even nature is inescapably bodied with mountains appearing as ‘scars on the skin of the land […] formed out of pain’. Landscape is sympathetic to sickness – or perhaps it is more true to say that in sickness, the poet is sympathetic to the land. In ‘Dark Hedges/Barbed Wire’, Atkin laments ‘I thought they were like me, sick with invasion, rust in our sap’. But this heaviness of body and pain is at time countered by a dissociation from identity; in nature, Atkin can separate her own experiences from herself, turning to second person with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness (‘You’re thinking about yourself divested of the self again’).

Much With Body’s most dynamic works of poetry can be found in the middle section of the book. Departing from autobiographical reflection, Atkin turns to the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth to create a handful of fascinating found poetry. This diversion is not jarring, nor does it feel out of place amidst the other poems in the collection. Atkin zeroes in on Dorothy’s own experience with sickness and poor health, as well as her constant observations of rain. ‘Dorothy’s Rain’ pieces together an extensive poem – three pages long – that is oppressive in its account of drizzly, forbidding weather. We feel as trapped and forlorn as Dorothy would have. ‘Much With Body’, the poem for which the collection is titled, brings Dorothy and her ailments to life, focussing on bodily experiences and pain. A line is drawn between the poet and Dorothy; a further line is drawn between these two women and the miraculous, forbidding landscape of the Lake District. Much With Body is a collection that exposes the closeness we share with the natural world, and is packed with insights not to be missed.


Much With Body by Polly Atkin is available via Seren.