Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Richard Kemp, Tony Williams and D A Prince
My first feeling on picking up this pamphlet was a sense of being impressed by the quality of the writing. Atkinson quite clearly knows how to write a poem. She is formally gifted and brings the reader into the poems through her use of precise description and word sounds. There’s much to like in her work, which is in keeping with Smiths/Doorstop’s emphasis (what I have seen of it at least) on description of personal experience and concrete reality. Maybe it is the poet’s job to write about what they know, and not stray too far from that—the only problem being if the reader fails to empathise with the domestic or emotional concerns of that particular poet. Poems about lying in bed with one’s partner, for example, need not just skill but originality in their execution because of the well-worn theme:
to where you should have slept, and crave
your body’s heat and musk, but meet
only the cold of unslept sheets. This day
without you breaks across my face.
(from ‘Day Breaking’)
Luckily Atkinson can bring her experiences and imaginings to the page in such a way as to leave the reader with appreciation. She achieves this through her excellent use of language. This from ‘The Bats’:
Its open eyes are beads of jet, its teeth
white needle tips, its feet are hands,
its wings spread out against the light,
an x-ray of fine bones, each thumb a hook.
The quality of this writing speaks for itself. Frequently with Atkinson’s work I was left with a sense of not just enjoyment, but a feeling that the text couldn’t really be altered—which is how it should be. These poems feel like an achievement.
I wonder how many poems about fishing in Derbyshire were published last year? I wrote one of them; Ann Atkinson wrote another. Maybe we could form a club. Certainly I’m predisposed to like the subject matter of Drawing Water, a pamphlet about place and nature and our relationship with nature.
There is a stoat, crossing the road between two cars and giving the two drivers a connection. The idea of a gift is important (the word’s used several times, once as the title of a poem). The bats which come “the summer after you had gone” provide some obscure solace. Nature comes to seem like a compensation for human failure. And in fact certain largely unspoken failures and sadnesses seem to underlie these poems.
The style is a mixture of plainish free verse and iambic pentameter. There are a good few sonnets, and on the whole I liked these best. The detailed list-making of ‘Inventory: 15 The Green’, the narrative of ‘The Gift’ and the sheer sonnety rightness of ‘At the Dental Technician’s’ were among my favourites—there’s a feeling of being in safe hands. It’s confident, unshowy work.
Sometimes the unshowiness becomes a problem. ‘Sousa’, ‘Sleepless at Sixty’ and one or two others were too anecdotal and plain for my taste. I preferred the poems which did something a bit more striking, such as the odd list of objects petrified in a well, or this, from ‘Identifying Scars’:
I watched them
reflected in the theatre’s light fitting
up to their wrists in me
lifting her out like a rabbit
‘Driving Home from Grasmere’ invokes Wordsworth to claim a certain territory for the poet: the visionary. Drawing Water works best when the vision it provides is at its most striking, when there’s a feeling of danger.
D A Prince:
Any pamphlet published by Smith/Doorstop sets up expectations about the quality of the poems and the production. Small, elegant, unfussy pamphlets containing perfectly judged poems—and yet every poet distinct and individual. Every time.
Ann Atkinson’s collection meets all these expectations, and offers poems that blend the real with metaphor in a satisfying fusion of lightness and precision. I’m tempted to quote the title poem, a sonnet, in its entirety, but that would skew the balance between poet and reviewer, so let’s look at how it works. An opening sestet, describing the school’s Art Room—
[. . . ] kept apart
for the hewers of wood and drawers of water
of whom the headmaster spoke,
and who’d never do Latin or Greek.
Then an octet (and this reversed form works) where students are taught to draw—
what we see—the light on windowsill plants,
how roof slates reflect the rhythm of chimneys,
that the sea spits light and swallows it . . .
They are the unacademic ones, but the ones who attend to the world in the detail of its variety, and who by their skill with a pencil can communicate their vision to others—like poets, but Atkinson does not force this conclusion on us. Instead, she demonstrates in every poem how to look at the world and report back.
‘High Wire Walk’, in the voice of Philippe Petit, describing his walk between the Twin Towers in August 1974, is at the centre of the collection. Again we can read it as a metaphor for writing poetry, and again Atkinson leaves this interpretation to us: her focus is Petit’s calmness and poise as he describes movement, air, the way time hangs:
They ask what runs through your mind;
it’s the grace of the line, antiphony of breath,
the slow dance to an aeolian song.
She also uses rope walking in ‘The Gift’, in which a child learns the art, outdoing a less-gifted father and setting herself free. This is another of her sonnets, with fluid rhyme and half-rhyme so delicately inserted you barely notice it, where a serious subject sits lightly. She looks kindly at the world—at being awake at 3.00 am, at a fellow driver’s smile as they both slow down to allow a stoat to cross the road safely, at a bat “circling/ like a particle of night”, at relationships, at the joy of preparing her house for guests—
The best thing in the world
is to make the house ready, check each room
for temperature . . .
Drawing Water is, as far as I can tell, Atkinson’s first pamphlet, and this surprised me: for me she’s been a constant part of the Midlands landscape as a poet, editor (she was a co-editor of Staple) and writing tutor. But it’s a collection worth waiting for: these are beautiful poems, generous in their attentiveness to what matters in life and writing.