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R V Bailey reviews ‘How Time is in Fields’ in Envoi, summer 2020

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UNDER THE RADAR | HOLDING THE MEMORY      D A PRINCE REVIEWS:
 JEAN ATKIN – HOW TIME IS IN FIELDS (INDIGO DREAMS PUBLISHING, £9.99)

Once we trusted time and the seasons, seeing them as ‘natural’ and immutable. Even city dwellers, sheltered by high-rise office blocks and modern technology, recognise seasonal patterns as the trees return to green leaf. Now that our understanding of these certainties is questionable and our responsibilities are challenged, it is timely to return to poems that look closely at the land. In How Time is in Fields, Jean Atkin’s poems read like an elegy for the landscapes she knows and loves. She shows us something precious at its tipping point, even while she is celebrating them as alive in the present moment. The old words for measuring time and seasons frame the collection. Atkin has taken the Old English names for the months, allotting three of these to each of the four poems called ‘almanack’. These have the role of section-markers, with the Old English month followed by a snapshot of its modern equivalent. Here is the opening of ‘almanack i’:

maedmonath

the meadow-month                                                
                      all hayseed and diesel, us                                 
crosslegged on the rocking                                                
stack of bales

The collection has some explanatory notes, but these are brief. If you are curious to see how the names for the Old English months match those in modern English you’ll need an internet search – but I’d suggest leaving this until you’ve read the collection. Let Atkin’s words work on your understanding of season and mood. In a few lines she can give the essence of a month, while simultaneously taking the twenty-first century back to its roots. Atkin is alert to the physical and immediate natural world, and to specific places. In ‘Eglwyseg day’ she breaks her mountain walk with precise timing, so there’s a sense of being alongside her: 

[12.23pm]

coffee from the Thermos. Perch
on springy bones of heather root and watch

across the gorge, a nursery
of dark firs gathered quiet
and good by the cliff’s white knee

There’s a lot of hill walking in this collection. We cross the micro-landscapes; the “windclipped gorse”, the “sink-holes of the mines”, the wrong path “full-stopped at a brink”, the grouse moor, while the mountain “rears and grins,/ shows all its caried limestone teeth.” A lot of fresh air and winter, too. In the four-line poem, ‘Boreas’, she gives the bones of winter:

After two months, it’s about hunger.
The sheep are tamer, come to call.

Short poems mirror winter’s short days and shrunken horizons. Atkin understands how to evoke the essence of the natural world, whatever the season. In ’19 paths through Rectory Wood’ the numbered stanzas (sometimes only one line long) read like notes, as in 12:

Beech compensates its lean,
         throws out long branches,
counterweights slowly into wind.

Her visual sense is acute, as is her awareness of the past. She is tuned to the continuing ordinariness, to what is undramatic in woods and fields. In the four stanzas of ‘Nettle lexicon’ she considers where we encounter this unloved and overlooked plant: in edgelands, dens, garden beds, and finally as the “nettle of the gone”:

O how the nettles do grow behind us, markers      
for our wiped-out villages, abandoned farms.          
How rife they are in the lost places.

There’s nothing sentimental here as she sets loss of dwellings against the nettles’ resilience. This works more effectively, for me, than her poems about people and vanishing rural skills. Her strength is in a language that matches nature, searching for a vocabulary to connect the reader with the uniqueness of landscapes she knows well.

(In ‘Under The Radar’ magazine, April 2020)

London Grip Poetry Review – Jean Atkin

April 15, 2020

Poetry reviewHow Time is in Fields: Wendy Klein commends Jean Atkin for making authentic poetry out of authentic country lore

How Time is in Fields
Jean Atkin
Indigo Dreams Publishing
ISBN: 9781912876075
70 pp     £9.99

It took me two false starts to find my way, start to finish, through this collection. However, that should not be taken as a criticism. Jean Atkin teaches us that so-called nature poems should not be an easy read. On the back cover the poet, Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, notes that ‘this is not a collection motivated by tranquillity.’ I agree entirely. Jean Atkin does not shrink away from the nature’s underbelly where ‘air smells of dung’, ‘dead stock’ and ‘gunshot’. How Time is in Fields is laced through with folklore, mythology, history and a forthright and deep knowledge of the countryside, a walker’s knowledge – and walking, I know from experience, can be a sweaty, occasionally uncomfortable, but always thought-provoking business.

I was not at once at home with the ‘almanack’ format at the start of the book with its unfamiliar vocabulary based on Old English. However, a second reading, and a good set of end notes, allowed me entrance. Like a musical score, Atkin sets out with the old English word, then threads in the rhythm of the walk:

maedmonath

                the meadow-month

                                all hayseed and diesel, us

                crosslegged on the rocking

                                stack of bales.                  

                                                     (‘almanack i’)

Ancient and modern at once, the strangeness became more attractive with each subsequent reading. She returns to the almanack four times, once for each season like a leitmotif in a musical composition, ending with:

oesturmonath

                in the month of opening —

                what splits

                                what shifts

                what births

                                what widens

               its eyes?                                             

                                                    (‘almanack iv’)

Atkin demonstrates so many poet skills in this collection that it is hard to know where to begin in praising them. She recognises the importance of good, strong verbs, adapting them to her purpose. In ‘How we rode after haytiming’ ponies are ‘hairtriggered’ into flight by a shout. In the poem ‘In Yellowhammer Weather’,

Frank’s Clun sheep rub their backs on the boles.
They brace their hooves between thin-fingered roots
and rake their rumps.

rub, brace, rake – and with a dash of alliteration to boot. In a diary poem, ‘Eglwyseg Day’, a path is ‘full-stopped’ at a brink by a sleeping sheep,’ and later, a dead sheep is ‘spreadeagled’ by a wall. In the final poem, ‘In a fair field at Whiteleaved Oak’, ‘a whole wood “boomed” under a plane.’ I could fill this review with more such examples, but there is much else to mention.

The title poem is a masterpiece of what I would describe as the personification of the natural:

In Rye Croft Coppy, a mole turned mortal,
upside to heaven. Above him brown Ringlets
wavered the clover.

— another terrific verb ‘wavered’ the clover. We find ‘Manes of Elderflower’ flowing into a hedge, and the poet heads downhill, with barley ‘hissing’ on her jeans. And then unexpectedly, a triumph in four stanzas in full rhyme, appropriately staggered: ‘The tattoo’d man’

has had a skinful, to go only by what shows.
His bull neck ‘s chained, a padlock swings
above its own hatched shadow.
In scrolling calligraphic script, his knife arm
pledges faith in love, and brags
his unsurrendered soul.

The poem continues with a well-rounded characterisation built on details from his tattoos, concluding:

With men, it’s never easy to be sure, but
here’s one who’s tried to take the outside in.
He’s shifty as gulls and bitter as bark.
Every night he reads that skin:
his library of pain
and virtue bright and thin.

This portrait is so vivid, you can see the man leaning over the bar to order his sixth pint, but in all his rough exterior, the poet manages to convey a sense of empathy. She establishes this palpable connection again through the judicious use of metaphor and simile in ‘Not there, nearly’ , epigraph, ‘Old Church Stoke’: the morning is ‘cream blackthorn warm’, the air is ‘lamb-bleat’ soft, ‘A tawny owl flies in daylight, has the wrong century’, and in the final stanza, ‘the moat ghosts halfway round / its mound. Bluebells glimmer like a rumour.’

Nowhere is this use of metaphor emerging from description more evident than in ‘The breaker’, in this case of horses. The poet introduces him, telling the reader how he does his job and then underpins this through powerful metaphor:

He was drizzle off the fell and frayed rope halters.
He was a comfrey poultice and strong tea.
He was the running horse under the hill.

Wherever she takes us, Atkin’s poems are grounded in life, death, and the passage of time. It is all there in ‘Nettle lexicon’. The poem is set out in four numbered stages of life and place with a generic ‘definition’ for each: ‘1 nettle of the edgelands / the dare in childhood to touch a nettle: will you grip that hairy leaf? / Stand still and rigid for this ordeal / while they wait in a circle to watch your face?’ The fourth nettle takes the reader beyond the personal to the symbolism of nettles where they become ‘markers /for our wiped-out villages, abandoned farms.’ The poet asks us to notice: ‘how rife they are in lost places.’

Images of loss and death are threaded through this collection, marking how time is in fields, how we cannot stop time. The poet finds a dead oystercatcher*: ‘our children white / with shock, they’ve not yet seen the death / of something young.’ (‘Oystercatchers’). In ‘near Todleth’, A lame ewe ‘lurches away from her twins / her bag all lumpy with mastitis.’ In ‘Boreas’ (the purple-winged Greek god of the North wind – my note),

After two months, it’s about hunger.
The sheep are tamer, come to call.

Just now, in snow by the byre,
a wren like a dead leaf

In only 4 lines, 2 stanzas, Atkin pinpoints what wintertime means, what it does. I find a blend of hope, pathos and wistfulness here, with a profound insight that celebrates nature in all its aspects, benign and raw at once. Someone said, or maybe I made it up myself, that there is such life in looking death in the face. That is exactly what this poet achieves in this unique and beautifully executed collection.


*actually it was a pet cat!

12 February 2020 – Review of ‘How Time is in Fields’ on Agenda Poetry by Patricia McCarthy

15 December 2019 – Review of ‘How Time is in Fields’ on Write Out Loud by Neil Leadbeater