High Nowhere
by Jean Atkin
64 poems, 101 pages
Price: £11
ISBN: 978-1-912876808
Publisher: Indigo Dreams Publishing
To order: www.indigodreamspublishing.com

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Shropshire-based poet, writer and educator, Jean Atkin is the author of two previously published full length collections from IDP, ‘How Time is in Fields’ (2019) and ‘The Bicycles of Ice and Salt’ (2021). She has worked on a variety of residencies in both England and Scotland and provides workshops and readings to schools, festivals and community and national organisations often working in collaboration with other writers.

‘High Nowhere’ opens with four carefully selected quotes from Wendell Berry, George Orwell, Donna Haraway and William Blake. Almost all express in their own way the beauty and the fragility of the created world and the dangers inherent in ignoring it. Humanity is conspicuous by its absence in this collection which focuses more on the impact of what we have done to the natural world. The focus is on weather, bleak landscapes, erupting volcanoes and a destabilisation of the natural order of things.

The book is divided into six sections. The first part, ‘Brink’, implies that we ourselves may already be on the brink of extinction as it catalogues certain species that have already become extinct: the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger and the Pyrenean ibex among others. In ‘listen’ she draws attention to the havoc caused by the seismic mapping of oil and gas reserves in our oceans, quieted temporarily during the Covid-19 pandemic, when normally, ‘stripes of pressurised air’ are blasted from guns into the sea bed ‘every ten seconds around the clock’ pointing out that ‘two thirds of zooplankton die / within three quarters of a mile around / each blast’ and how the noise around container ships interferes with communication between whales.

The second part, ‘Spread’, refers to the rapid outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. ‘Earth’s viral load’ is central to this section:

To understand viruses, consider

how humans infest the earth.

How each one wants only to live.

Atkin explores what it was like to live through lockdown, not just the loneliness and the sense of disconnectedness from others but also the opportunity that it afforded to begin to listen to nature.

The next section, ‘Source’ is all about the power of wind and water. There are poems here about old watermills and modern wind turbines whose ‘rotor cones revolve the flying sky’…’the long gods of the upper air’….who ‘reap as long as the wind can blow’. Within this section, there is a narrative poem ‘Death of an oil rig’ which describes the story of a redundant oil rig ‘Winner’ that was ‘condemned at thirty-three and bound / for scrap’, towed out from its position in Scottish waters and taken all the way to Turkey to be systematically dismantled because it would fetch more in the East than in Europe.

At the core of this collection is Atkin’s journey to Iceland which she undertook during the Covid years. The volcanic activity, (in the headlines again as I write this review), is captured succinctly with descriptions of the ever-shifting landscape, its hot springs, deep fissures and lava flows. There are poems about folktales and fables, the Icelandic alphabet, and a trek to an extinct volcano where Atkin conveys to her readers her sense of unease as she picks her way through the vast, bleak landscape:

We knew our limits, retreated off those recent

ancient rocks, turned tail for lower ground.

How brief and small we were beneath that sky.

In the last two sections, Atkin writes of climate change, in particular, heatwave, and its effects on the natural world. In the final poem titled ‘PS. The cat considers important things’ she uses humour as an effective device to convey a serious truth. Turning to the cat she asks: ‘And what about the climate crisis, Orlando?’ The imagined reply comes back: ‘your problem’.

This is a book with an urgent message, an emotional plea for us to listen to what nature is trying to tell us about how our twenty-first century lives are impacting upon the environment and everything within it. A number of the author’s own black and white photographs enhances the text and our understanding of the poems contained within.

This review was first published in Write Out Loud (UK) and is reprinted with kind permission.


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