My kind of poetry: Jean Atkin’s “The bicycles of ice and salt”

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Here’s a thing. I’ve just checked, and found that since early November last year I’ve written only two appreciations/reviews of other poeple’s poetry.

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How on earth did I end up like this?After all, I started the great fogginzo’s cobweb precisely to share and celebrate work I’d just come across and couldn’t wait to tell you about. Part of the answer to this is obvious..like many others I’ve been locked out of the everyday world of trips and visits and chance encounters. And in this context, particularly I’ve not been able to go on retreats or to readings or to open mics for over two years. I’ve not been well for most those two years, and I’ve not heard new poems being performed. I’ve not bought books at a reading because of the poems I heard, and brought them home, and reread them, and got to know them as friends .

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Let’s throw into the mix that, apart from misssing the frisson, the buzz of company and of new experiences, I’ve been putting a collection together and trying to lay some nagging half-written poems to rest. I’ve been turned inwards. It might work for some, but it’s never worked for me, because, for me, poetry is performative, feeding on the to and fro of people’s reaction. For months now I’ve not been able to hear the poem on the page; its meaning drifts away in a jumble of words. 

I thought it was all coming back when I wrote about Kim Moore and Carola Luther, but then I lost track of it again. You’ll be familiar with the idea of Writer’s Block. I never imagined that there could be such a thing as Reader’s Block, and it’s truly alarming to be in the middle of it.

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Anyway. Maybe it’s something to do with the early onset of spring, the urgency in the air and at the tips and edges of things, but the buzz and excitement is coming back, bit by bit. I’m reading poems aloud to myself again, relishing the texture and brush of another mind. The words are coming alive off the page for the first time in ages and ages. I found myself absorbed in other folk’s poems, and hearing them rather than just looking, nose pressed to the window. Loved re-reading Samantha Wynne-Rydderch’s Banjo. Ditto MacCaig favourites, and David Constantine……never thought it would come back, that music.

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[I’ve just been deflected by rain coming in round the kitchen window frame. It did the same thing in identical weather two years ago. Bugger. I spent a lot of time up a ladder with cement and trowel. Clearly, it’s not been fixed. Job for what a relation of ours calls ‘a Proper Man’. Local builder hunt starts tomorrow. Back to the script]

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Where was I? Ah yes. The music. I’m hearing it in two pamphlets [published in 2021] which I bought and didn’t properly attend to. I couldn’t hear them. Now I think I can. Jean Atkin’s The bicycles of ice and salt (Indigo Dreams £6.50), and Marion Oxley’s The taxidermist’s house (4Word. £5.99). I thought I might write about both in one post, and then decided each deserves its own . This week, it’s Jean Atkin, and next week, Marion Oxley. Put it in your diary.

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I’ve always been a sucker for well-told travellers’ tales. Never having been a strong walker or adequate climber, and never having much enjoyed long-distance travel, I compensate with the books of those who are and do. Long distance walks, particularly. John Hillaby’s Journey through Britain was the first (and still the best, I think). For a time I was hooked on the books of Ffyona Campbell, the ultra-long-distance walker (Feet of clay, et al) and Nicholas Crane’s account of walking from the west coast of Spain to Istanbul via the mountain watersheds of Europe (Clear water rising). They can all write. They know how to illuminate a place via an anecdote or an image. They let you visualize what and who they see. They are good companions whose conversation I relish. When it’s done well it feels effortless. 

When it isn’t it’s dull and sometimes boring. At its very worst, it can be like being trapped by someone with a fat photo album of indifferent snaps, and a commentary that might include ‘this waiter we met who was real character…you can’t see him in this shot, but…..’

It’s possible to write good clear prose and still not pull it off. I’ve just read a well-reviewed climbing autobiography that seems to stay on the same note, where none of the places or people quite come to life. I hated not liking it, because it clearly meant a lot to the writer. It aims to take you into the Cairngorm (say) but Nan Shepherd, or Robert Macfarlane it isn’t. It’s a hard act to pull off, to make people feel as though they’ve travelled with you.

Which, after many stops and side-turnings, brings us to today’s guest, Jean Atkin, and her pamphlet The bicycles of ice and salt. who is exactly that kind of good companionThe last two years have not been kind to poets, inasmuch as when you publish a pamphlet you hope for live readings where you can sell copies, and the word of mouth that follows; when the readings aren’t possible, you’re reliant on the lottery of reviews, and ‘likes’ in social media. Greg Freeman has written a generous review (See link at the end) but as far as I can see, that’s been it since early December. However, there’s a launch event in a couple of weeks. You can be there via Eventbrite, and once more the link is at the end. Let’s hope Greg’s review and this post persuade you to rock up and enjoy it. Right. Welcome, Jean Atkin, who introduces herself like this:

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“Jean Atkin grew up in Cumbria, with Shetland ancestry.  Her most recent publications are ‘The Bicycles of Ice and Salt’ (IDP), about two long journeys by bicycle, ‘Fan-peckled’ (Fair Acre Press) in 2021 which is based on lost Shropshire words, and her second collection ‘How Time is in Fields’ (IDP).  Her poetry has won competitions, been anthologised and was commissioned and featured on BBC Radio 4. She has been Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival, and was BBC National Poetry Day Poet for Shropshire in 2019. She works as a poet in education and community. ” 

I’ll add that she’s championed by Ursula Fanthrope’s former companion, RV Bailey, who writes ‘Atkin is one of the most original and rewarding poets that we have in the literary landscape at the moment’. There you go.

Jean explains that “I wrote the poems over the last seven years or so, but they’re based on diaries which cover two long journeys I made by bicycle in the 1980s. The first journey was with my friend Shona from October 1980 – August 1981, in which we pedalled into winter, with hardly any money, down the east side of France, later across Italy and back up the west and north of France to Boulogne – nearly 5000 miles. A very slow and eccentric Tour de France.  
Seven years later I persuaded my partner Paul to set off by bicycle, into winter, with hardly any money, south through France then around the coastlines of Spain and Portugal, returning to Britain from Santander in March 1988 – again, nearly 5000 miles.

When writing the poems so many years later, I had diaries and photographs to work from, including detailed lists of expenditure that demonstrate just how very cash-strapped both these journeys were…

Of course, despite that, they were magical, and life-changing.”

What drew me into these poems at once was the way that after a gap of years and hindsight Jean Atkin manages to realise the innocence and naievete of that first journey. The experiences come fresh minted. 

     We bought nothing that explained

     how to travel through the world of men.

     We weren’t streetwise. We had to learn

     hot to look competent, avoid their eye,

     how and when to lie.

                                                      (‘Valuables’)

These are songs of innocence which is never judged, although it’s obviously and lovingly understood,by the voice of experience.. Everything is vivid and present.

Eve in Autun 

Young and shivering I stand in front of Eve

who’s any age, and beautiful, in stone.

Her naked body’s sinuous as trees.  This

is about the flesh, and not the bone. 

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The nave’s deep cold threads through 

my clothes.  I breathe the longings in its walls.

I’m half in love with this woman made 

of stone, not lewd, about to fall.

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She lies in the Garden, in the leaves, one hand

to her soft cheek as she whispers to Adam. 

Her breasts hang round as fruits.  I watch her reach back,

without looking, for the apple and her whoredom.

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I chose this poem to start with especially because it embodies that double vision that I like so much in the collection. Here’s the poet standing by, observing her young self who’s transfixed by this sculpture of the naked Eve in a cold church where everyone’s breath is white. Eve is caught by the sculptor at the transformative moment when the future balanced the point of her choice. Her vulnerabilty, naked in the winter cold of stone and mythology, is echoed in that of the shivering young self, and her insight that 

                              This is about the flesh, and not the bone. 

I really love the ambiguity of 

                  I watch her reach back, /without looking, for the apple and her whoredom.

Who’s the “I” that watches ‘her’ ? It’s the older and younger self, surely. The book is ‘transformative’ writes Matthew Stewart, and here’s the turning point. It’s beautifully crafted in three rhyming quatrains. It has a simple formality, this poem in which the poet looks back in some wonder at who she was. It has the stylised quality of an illustration in a Book of Hours, where so often the image is of a woman…Eve, the Virgin Mary..at a moment of epiphany. It’s beautiful. I chose it to start with because it shows clearly how this slim pamphlet which potentially had enough narrative potential for a thick book tells that story by moments that draw you in. A stunning photograph album that almost needs no commentary.

The physicality of these moments is something that sticks in my mind. Nearly every poem is a moment of arrest in a journey that totals ten thousand miles, and can only be hinted at in the briefest of references to place..Auxerre, Laon, Montpazier, Aton, Soissons, Ponte de Lima, Barcelona…often off the beaten track, a landscape of out of season/closed down pensions, campsites, road verges and farmers’ fields. What the pamphlet does is gently remind you of the physical effort. We bought machines built for men, say the 18 year olds whose bikes grow icicles on their chains. I chose the next poem to stand for the months of effort, since I know nothing more physically draining than riding a bike in a a big wind.

Leaf night 

The spokes are going round so slowly I can count them. 

The wind bangs like pans in my head.   

Leaves cartwheel down the lane towards us.  

The frost has licked it clean.  

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Tonight I know each rattling leaf, spun

from the plane trees of every village square.    

Like sails they lift, they scrape and flap.

I can’t hear your voice above the gale.    

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Gusts slam my eyelids so I don’t see it start. 

A thousand leaves rise up like bolts of cloth.

They rustle as they come for us.  I call out your name

just once before they close my mouth.   

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The long first line nails it for me, and I’m hooked.It’s such a simple image,but you understand the sheer effort of pushing down and down on the pedals that barely keep the bike moving. Read it aloud and let the end-stopped lines,the short sentences tell you about the stalled rhythms of it all.

And treasure that stunning image: 

                   A thousand leaves rise up like bolts of cloth

You see how the road ripples. It’s like CGI. And then it’s engulfing. 

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I thought of finishing with one of the poems in which a rider walks a bike across the sand and pushes the front wheel into the edge of the ocean.  But that’s not how the pamphlet works, with a neat image of journey’s end. It’s as though the journey will never be over, and all the better for that. Instead, I chose this one for the way it encapsulates the business of being off the beaten track where strangers are an unexpected sight, in landscapes that might be beautiful in summer but are actually workplaces, and where the work is not especially well-paid.

El Vilosell

An old man and a boy are mending a moped.  

Beside them, a loaded donkey droops.

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Bon Dia, I say, and keep both hands on the bars

because the bike is weaving on the rutted track.

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They look up, and the man hasn’t shaved

and I think they’re both too surprised to speak.

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For five minutes the hamlet is a maze we wander, 

repetitions of pantiles, propped doors and smoke

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and then for an hour we climb through terraces of olives.    

Lean men beat the trees with sticks, and fruits rain

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into nets through the mesh of their shouts.  Cliffs are hawks

rising.  We kiss on the brink, and feel, as much as see

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the thousand soundless feet of air

falling from here to the Rio Monsant.  

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I thought it would be nice to stop there, with a kiss on the brink, and just for a moment feeling as though we can fly. So there you are. I hope you’ll want to order the book…direct from Jean is as good any way. Use Google. And then book yourself a place at the Eventbrite launch in March.

Jean Atkin, thanks for being a guest on the Cobweb. It’s been a pleasure.

Eventbrite Link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-bicycles-of-ice-salt-jean-atkin-tickets-262978063467

Greg Freeman Review: https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=119331

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