Writing a place, invoking an instant: Jean Atkin on writing off the scale

Monday 4 March 2013

Our guest blogger, Jean Atkin, has much to say that is relevant in this Year of Natural Scotland, having written extensively about  landscapes and places, including her recent pamphlet The Dark Farms (Roncadora Press). She will be launching her first full collection, Not Lost Since Last Time (Oversteps Books), at her StAnza reading on 9 March.

When I was 14 or so and dipping into a borrowed Penguin Classics paperback (no internet on those long 1970s afternoons) I read the words of an unknown Irish poet who had lived in the eleventh century.

‘In the black season of deep winter/ a storm of waves is roused along/ the expanse of the world./ Sad are the birds of every meadow plain/ at the clamour of winter, except/ the ravens that feed on crimson blood./ The dogs are vicious in cracking bones/ and the iron pot is put on the fire.’

I was astounded by the dizzying, momentary sense the words gave me of seeing a long-lost place exactly then through the eyes and thoughts of another person - even if they’d been dead for almost a thousand years and even if the coast country in question was now under a car park.

Dark Farms Glenhead

Place is strangely and intimately important to humans.  It’s our backdrop to memory, our stage set for pain and joy.  We grasp human emotion through the evocation of place.  Place holds significance so deeply that we visit scenes of atrocity with a sensitised perturbation about what we made be made to feel there.  There are ghosts.  The natural and built environment surrounds us all, and both is, and symbolises, who we are and what we inherit.

When poets write about place, they explore cycles of continuity and disruption.  Esther Morgan’s wonderful poem Bone China traces the event of the servant girl who smashed the dinner service and disappeared

‘That dawn she walked out of her story forever,

though her flavour salted the servants’ tongues for months,
and clearing the ground a hundred years later

of this self-seeded scrub of ash

I can still piece bits of her together – white and sharp –

as if the earth were teething.’ 

In her poem Glid, Jen Hadfield calls up measures of our own lives against an atavistic, ancient sense of place when she turns the camera on her ‘dissolving self’ and then

‘I turn the camera on dazzled
Everything –

Plain rain – the loch –

The incandescent horses


Forged black against the broch – ‘

Place is so very near to us.  Philip Gross’ poem Globe blurs the distinction between.

‘on the half-landing newel post, a near-

sphere, scratched and grainy, oiled

with the sweat of our palms,

            our turns and hesitations on the stair,


till it reflects, no, recollects us – ‘

And we know what he means.  Have you ever been back as an adult to the house you lived in until you were 6?  It’s most peculiar.

Places shape our memories and help to make us who we are.  They are more than backdrop – places are nothing less than creative atmosphere and texture for the stories we all tell ourselves to help make sense of life.  Places become mapped in our heads in flashes of detail: the particular click of a particular door closing in your face; the dark step you sat brooding on when you were banished from the family dinner table; the field where once you galloped on stubble, years ago, with horse sweat greying the backs of your fingers.

It’s not the Ordnance Survey.  It’s off the scale.  What you need is a poem.

Jean Atkin  http://thedogdaysofdumfriesshire.blogspot.co.uk/