ESSAY Dr Polly Atkin

NWR Issue 120

Why Is It Always a Poem Is a Walk?

Twelve years ago, when I moved to Cumbria and starting writing about the things around me, ecopoetry in the UK seemed to be a niche pursuit, something that happened on the fringes of our ecosystem, at the distant margins. It was unfashionable, dismissible. That can’t be said now. Ecopoetry has grown and become mainstream enough that there are multiple anthologies, courses and prizes in the UK dedicated to it, as well as numerous scholarly studies.

As ecopoetics has become established, certain practices and expectations of ecopoetic process and content have also become established. These predominantly presuppose able-bodied practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both poetic process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem. In these presumptions, the growing field of ecopoetics holds much in common with broader genres of nature writing, place-based, landscape and outdoor writing, and environmental movements in general. I often describe my poetry as being concerned with both human and non-humans and the world they share, focused on the environment, inside and out: the body as dwelling, and how we live in the world. I had thought of this as largely an ecopoetic project, but as I watched ecopoetics take root, I watched it become increasingly demanding of physical stamina, and less and less accessible to me.

After a lifetime of unexplained and worsening health problems, I was diagnosed in 2014 with one of the Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes: hereditaryconnective tissue disorders characterised by hypermobile joints which regularly dislocate and subluxate (slip out of joint), skin and blood vessel fragility, and often, as in my case, low bone density. A year to the day later, I was also diagnosed with genetic haemochromatosis: a metabolic disorder that leads to iron accumulating in the body to toxic levels. Like EDS, it causes joint pain and fatigue, and a host of other debilitating symptoms depending on which organs the iron damages. Both conditions are considered ‘invisible’; both affect the whole body in continually surprising ways.

Sarah Jaquette Ray has recognised that ‘at the heart of adventure sports is the appeal of personal challenge. The individual – usually male – pits himself against Nature and survives.’ This acknowledges the dominance in nature writing of the figure Kathleen Jamie dubbed ‘the lone enraptured male’ in her review of Robert McFarlane’s The Wild Places: a man ‘bright, healthy and highly educated’, ‘here to boldly go.’ Ray calls this figure the ‘wilderness body ideal’. Stacy Alaimo recognises it as ‘the abled, hyperfit body’ that dominates environmental writing and thinking, and is clearly at the core of the majority of mainstream nature writing, including ecopoetry.

The issue of risk also seems to be at the heart of nature writing, with Jamie suggesting part of the rapture of nature writing comes from using land ‘once out to kill us’ as recreational. Ray asks ‘if getting close to nature is about risking the body in the wild, what kind of environmental ethic is available to the disabled body?’ It’s a lot easier to think of bodily risk as an adventure, rather than a crisis to be avoided, if you are healthy, resilient and able-bodied. It can seem beneficial to push your body to the point of pain through sporting endeavour if you are not in pain every moment of the day, if you don’t risk serious injury just moving around your home. When being outdoors becomes linked to courting risk, those who experience risk differently are sidelined, erased. Ray finds ‘the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat – symbolic rather than actual’ to the body of the lone enraptured adventurer...

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her first poetry collection, Basic Nest Architecture, was published by Seren in 2017. An extract from this was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize in 2014 for ‘reflect[ing] a strong sense of place or the natural environment’. Her first pamphlet, [i;bone song] (Aussteiger, 2008), was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award, 2009, and her second, Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013), won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. Her third pamphlet, With Invisible Rain (New Walk Press, 2018), draws on found texts, including Dorothy Wordsworth’s late journals, to articulate pain. She has taught English and Creative Writing at QMUL, Lancaster University, and the universities of Cumbria and Strathclyde. She is a Penguin Random House WriteNow mentee for a non-fiction book reflecting on place, belonging, and living with chronic illness.

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