REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue 105

So Many Moving Parts

by Tiffany Atkinson

So Many Moving Parts is another brilliant collection from Tiffany Atkinson, one of Britain’s best contemporary poets. This third collection, following on from Kink and Particle and Catulla et al, is a startling book, full of outstanding poems to be returned to again and again.

One of the hallmarks of Atkinson’s voice is juxtaposition, the ability to combine statements from a range of sources, or a range of events, resulting in poems which always surprise and which force the reader to engage. She is a master of the apparent non sequitur; there is always a thrilling feeling that we could go absolutely anywhere next. So Many Moving Parts, then, would be an apt description of Atkinson’s jumpy, multi-faceted, trademark voice. A key poem in the collection is ‘Roaming,’ which is made up of overheard fragments of telephone conversation, so that we only get one side of the story. The reader’s experience here is typical of reading Atkinson. We are drawn in as we seek to understand how the poem’s enigmatic statements go together. How does ‘Yes such a spendthrift wasn’t I, / love love love’ fit with ‘There is a party / next door; also there’s a moon / like something built by children’? The reward for engaging, as so often with this poet, is a stunning, open ending, which makes us return again and again to the poem: ‘Perhaps it’s giving birth – / I think it’s female. Taxi. Or it’s dying.’

‘Roaming’ is instructive because Atkinson so often makes us want to hang together fragments – or a series – of conversation. This aspect seems to draw on the inheritance of Carol Ann Duffy or, further back, TS Eliot. There’s a sequence, near the centre, of beach-set poems, and one of its most striking sections, ‘Beachcombing’, offers further evidence of her approach. It gives us some brilliantly observed and original description: ‘This patisserie / of crotches in their little wraps; how tenderly / we don’t look.’ It’s worth taking a moment to admire how artfully controlled line breaks here maximise the image’s impact. While there is much in Atkinson’s voice which is thrillingly her own, there is much that draws, of course, on literary tradition. Set against this descriptive voice, there are a number of first person statements which are witty (‘I would like a bitter chinking glassful / emptied on my head. I would like to drink the sea’) or emotionally intriguing (‘I have spent a half-life / on the wrong strand’). It’s the interplay of these different tones, the way in which they are put right up against each other, which makes the poem so successful, leading, again, to an ending to kill for: ‘When the small brown woman comes to snap the / last umbrellas shut, she’ll tut and sweep the bones.’

If So Many Moving Parts succeeds because of juxtaposition at the level of language, its juxtaposition of different events is also important. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the collection’s best poems – and easily the best poem I have ever read about irritable bowel syndrome – ‘Guts’. The poem opens with a startling image: ‘IBS, / he says, plays Matthew Corbett / to his Sooty.’ It then shifts to the poet’s father’s experience (‘Recently my father had / a portion of his gut cut out and one / part doubled like a pinky through / his abdomen’) and that of a stranger who prays ‘every day for his wife, / for relief from her punitive bowels’. It ends with the poet herself, needing to interrupt a three-hour run, in a conclusion which is worth quoting in full:

I ducked beneath a bridge and squatted
like a dog in dead leaves feeling occult,

hooked up to a secret sphere of miniscule
fauna and landscapes, twenty-five feet
of watery engine churning at the river-
mouth, that dark unloved star.

Such moments show how Atkinson’s technique can take poetry, incredibly successfully, to places it is difficult to remember it having been before. Other highlights are ‘Avdimou’, one of the best poems about first childhood experience of loss since John Berryman’s ‘The Ball Poem,’ or another favourite, ‘The hands of flight attendants,’ whose magnificence should be evident from its title.

Does So Many Moving Parts significantly move Atkinson’s art forward from her previous collections? Those poems newest in terms of Atkinson’s style are the longer, excellent, song-like ones: ‘La poulette grise’ and ‘Mantra.’ Elsewhere, it might be the case that readers love this book for many of the same reasons that they loved Kink and Particle, that the poems here represent a deepening, rather than a broadening of voice, which is of course no bad thing. I suppose the yardstick for development in a third book is the work of the Northern Irish poet Alan Gillis, who produced two excellent books, before his third, Here Comes the Night, moved into territory, in terms of ambition and achievement, which was quite stratospheric. But a comparison with Gillis’ brilliantly rambunctious singing is unfair on Atkinson, who is a quieter poet of intimate late night phone conversations whispered in our ears. Poetry, and the world, needs both such voices.

Jonathan Edwards is a contributor to New Welsh Review in print and online.

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previous review: Miners at the Quarry Pool
next review: The Brethren


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