60 pages, Bloodaxe, £9.95
So much cold
even the moon can’t swallow it
or the harbour in its fishy dark.
On reading the first three lines of the first poem of Tiffany Atkinson’s new collection, you might be left wondering what all the fuss is about. Her first collection, Kink and Particle, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and won the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award. Atkinson appeared in Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets, before her second collection, Catulla et al, a TLS Book of the Year, was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year) in 2012.
Yet her third book, So Many Moving Parts, begins with a sentence a child might have come up with. Any poem with the word moon in it is enough to put me on red alert. Other readers will have their own pet hates when it comes to certain words or images in poems. But, certainly, not much thought could have gone into describing the darkness above the harbour: Er, fishy? That will do.
After that, clichés are thrown out of the window and, in this poem (‘Nightrunning’) alone, one witnesses a turnaround so unexpected (expected, if the reader is familiar with Atkinson’s work) that, even before the second page, we know we are reading the work of a genius. One will also understand why So Many Moving Parts has also won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and will go on to win plenty more awards.
Although all at once reminding of several American Bloodaxe poets, most notably W.S. Merwin and Stephen Dobyns, ‘Nightrunning’ takes the reader to a place where only the most introspective of poets can tunnel their way to. Immediately after the poor start, ‘You/balance your breath like a bowl of dry/ice’ and subconsciously our own breathing prepares itself for the rest of the poem. If not for that warning, how else might we react to:
So much rain
even the deepest hill
can’t filter it
or the river with its open gills.
Floods are alluded to in a subtle tap. Beneath that danger, there is a whisper of a bigger threat. But Atkinson, so often, gives her sinister poems a sweet, hopeful conclusion. In its simple two-storey structure, ‘Nightrunning’ gives us body and love as a mistake, then a blessing. One let-down is that there is no real explanation, although this could be a deliberate reflection upon reality, just as the second stanza structurally reflects the first, one dripping wet, the other stone cold, both alive with an animal (Merwin’s wild creature) watching. In the repetition of ‘Nightrunning’, we feel the strain of it after a few readings. Repetition is stronger later in the book, so if you do not like long list-poems avoid ‘La poulette grise’ and ‘Mantra’.
The rain of ‘Nightrunning’ and, later, ‘Animal Truck’ meets the bedded water of ‘A Film of Gannets’, ‘Beachcombing’ and ‘Avdimou’, both of which combine in the two-part poem ‘Two parts of rain’. Spring is a ‘smug bastard rooting in the stands’ (Match day) but there is twice the mention of a rebellious spirit deliberately not wearing an anorak; firstly the body of Christ, then later the narrator in a poem to her mother.
‘Nightrunning’ might include the poorest three lines in the entire collection, but the poem’s strength is also the collection’s strength. Poems ‘of the heart’ may have been well overcooked, especially by the specialist on this subject, Stephen Dobyns, but lines such as ‘Somewhere inside/where the heart spins hard on its string’ embody the permeating cold and damp. Deceptively, it is not the motion of the heart spinning which draws us into a sense of mystery, but the straightforward ‘somewhere inside’. Far from being a mere filler, these two words make the body a vast space, a landscape, and the heart, and the watching animal which follows, becomes a dot on the horizon. Knowing the importance of the heart, as every reader will, we are drawn into arcane pensiveness and intrigue.
The only disappointment is that Atkinson does not delve deeply enough into her exploration, no doubt for the sake of variety, but the hint of it suggests the poet will explore this approach in more depth in later collections. Judged on her previous collections, we already know that Atkinson is a brave explorer, as well as a unique one, making the comparisons with Merwin and Dobyns all the more relevant. In her poetry, readers are exposed to a rare efficient mixture of these two poets, the ordinariness of the spiritual in Merwin and the spirituality of the ordinary in Dobyns. In her own words, one of poetry’s chief gifts is ‘to encourage and support the kind of fricative reading experience that is so absent from contemporary textual encounters’.
Heart and water combine in ‘On crying’:
being not sadness exactly,
which as you know has slow,
deep flesh like any large mammal
and mostly lies close where you left it;
(this last line, again, alludes, in one sentence, to a thought encapsulated in ‘Two parts of rain’: ‘None/can agree whether distance or proximity/moves first in the bodies of others’.)
while tears in themselves are amphibious,
fickle, lunar, flash-in-the-pan,
the watery double upsetting the dish.
Although born in Berlin, Atkinson can be called a Welsh poet. After a peripatetic childhood, she only began writing once she had moved to Wales, as an adult, and settling in Wales has caused a recalcitrant national identity. Just as my English father was more accessorised with Welshness than all his Welsh colleagues put together, a displaced writer might emphasise her new surroundings. But Atkinson’s Wales is authentic and alluring. Place names are not added just for their fresh sounds. England and Scotland, of course, have their own versions of the ‘farms of Ceredigion’ which ‘send people four-/by-four’ but this does not take away from the atmosphere of the locations. If anything, its familiar scenes in unfamiliar places will ground these curiosities in reality. Readers of Tiffany Atkinson will believe she lives in Wales, and will wish to learn more about her take on the everyday life of the country.
And it is the familiar unfamiliarity of Atkinson’s skies and moons where we eventually end up (and have the most laughs). The powerful, mighty aeroplane proves again what a great setting it is for humour as we find ourselves in the capable hands of flight attendants:
They have blessed us and
rendered us so light and airworthy
they must buckle us down
for our own good
like a vestibule of hysterics.
So Many Moving Parts only gives us a brief glimpse into the beguiling mind of Wales’ most inventive and original thinker-poet (although she is far from being the most inventive and original linguistically). Her work as a whole will wave its influence well beyond the shores of Wales but already there is so much to catch up on if you are new to her poetry. So Many Moving Parts, while not as thought-provoking or as brave as Catulla et al (well, name a collection published since that is), this will still be one of the year’s surprising journeys.
I cannot praise Atkinson further without sounding like her agent, but I am no longer jealous of the poetry talents of the rest of the UK (the Scottish poets having long been my personal favourite). Read So Many Moving Parts, or one of Atkinson’s earlier collections, and discover for yourself what Welsh poetry really has to offer.