‘Writ in Water’ – Polly Atkin

Polly Atkin’s poem ‘Lake Fever’ appears for the first time in Lines Underwater – an anthology of new art work and writing re-envisioning mermaids in the twenty first century. Here, you can read four more water-themed poems by Polly, as well as her great piece ‘Writ on Water’ in which she explains how water inspires her poetry.

Polly Atkin – Three Poems


Writ in Water

“I was born and brought up in Nottinghamshire, one of the most landlocked counties in Britain, by two parents who love the sea.

“This is how I came to spend the first weeks of my life by or on water. My arrival four weeks ahead of schedule interrupted the family holiday by the sea in Devon. Instead of changing plans, they accommodated the extra person and carried on. The overwhelming atmosphere of my first weeks was salt air and sand; waves and sea breezes; unsteady footing. The medium of being was water. I spent most of that summer floating on an estuary, neither one place nor another.

“It is this, in my mind, which explains my intense and particular love of water. My need for water. When I don’t swim regularly I dream of it. When I find myself flying in dreams I am really swimming through the thin water of the air. As a child I came to think my very slightly webbed fingers and toes marked me out as the descendant of Selkies – those seal-women who put off their skins for a chance to walk, and love, as a human, and too often find themselves stranded, beached in human form, when their skin is taken from them. It seemed the worst cruelty in the world – not to be able to return to the ocean. I became determined to live by the sea. My best friend and I developed a way to soar underwater we called Mermaid Stroke. I became convinced of my paradoxical nature. I saw myself as a peculiar monster – a big cat happiest in her skin when her fur is scaled.

“For me, a hot day is wasted if it does not include a swim. On land I am clumsy. I trip over my own limbs. I fall off the solid ground. I stumble. My joints are too loosely strung together. When I run I rattle. In the water I am faster, smoother: a completed creature. Comfortable in my body in a way I find rarely, dry.

“At 10 I discovered the wonders of lake-swimming. All that pellucid freshwater; the mountains inverted in the lake surface as you propelled your sleek shape through them. My ideal landscape shifted: there now must be mountains and lakes running down to the permanent sea. I found this in many ways when I moved to the Lake District 2006 to start my phD. I’ve come to think of the Lake District as underpinned, culturally and structurally, not by rock, but by water. It is, as Samuel Baker calls is, essentially ‘a maritime region’. In his Cumbrian poetry, Norman Nicholson conceptualised the fells as constantly tumbling into the ‘sea to the west’.

“This vision – this need for water – to be on it, in it, around it – underpins all my thinking. It appears and reappears in my writing from my earliest childish adventure stories to my latest poems and even my academic work.

‘Lake Fever’ was written during 10 months of self-imposed exile in 2010 as I wrote up my thesis back in Nottingham. It came directly out of a link I made in my academic work between Calenture – a tropical disease believed in Wordsworth’s time to make infected Sailors throw themselves into the waves in an effort to return to their distant homes –  and Wordsworth’s descriptions of the inland waters of the Lake District. Alan Bewell describes the Calenture as a kind of pathological homesickness. I began to see in Wordsworth’s work a kind of cold-climate Calenture, a Lake Fever. Then, of course, I diagnosed it in myself.”

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her poetry has been published widely, recently in Pilot Pocket Book, MagmaRialto, and 1110. Her debut pamphlet bone song (Clitheroe: Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the 2009 Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. Her second pamphletShadow Dispatches (Bridgend: Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize 2012. She is happiest in or by water, with the sun on her face.