What's Human

What's Human
Outside under
this field of stars
in a frost             that slows
the blood

we are the dark.

We hold in a creel
of air
what's human

and stretch out
our fingertips
to the whorl        of galaxies

to feel for what's not there.
Jean Atkin

from Not Since Last Time (South Pool: Oversteps Books, 2013)

Reproduced by permission of the author.
Jean Atkin

Jean Atkin grew up in Cumbria, with Shetland ancestry, and lived for twelve years on a smallholding in Dumfries and Galloway. She is now settled in Shropshire, working as a poet, writer and educator. Her first collection is Not Lost Since Last Time (Oversteps Books, 2013).  Her pamphlets to date are The Treeless Region (Ravenglass Poetry Press, 2010), Lost At Sea (Roncadora Press, 2011), which was shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, The Dark Farms (Roncadora Press, 2012) and The Henkeeper’s Almanac (Biscuit Tin Press, 2013). She is a past winner of the Torbay Prize, the Ravenglass Poetry Prize, and the Ways With Words Prize at Dartington Hall.

Jean Atkin has been poet in residence at Dumfries and Galloway Science Festival, as well as Logan Botanic Gardens, as a part of the Walking With Poets project in collaboration with the SPL. She has worked with numerous school and community groups. Through, In The Pink, an award winning project managed by Hereford Courtyard Arts, she also works as a poet with people living with dementia.

Read more about this poet
About What's Human

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2013 was David Robinson.

Editor's comment:

The contrast between the unknown depth between the stars and our own infinitely more transient lives is a common enough theme of poetry, but that doesn’t make it any the less remarkable – particularly when delivered with such concision, calling up comparison between those vast interstellar darknesses and uncharted depths within ourselves.

Author's note:

‘What’s Human’ was written on my smallholding in Dumfriesshire during the bitterly cold winter of 2010-2011.  I was just beginning work on a large group of poems about the Galloway Forest – its dark skies, ruined farms and disappearing population – that later became a pamphlet, The Dark Farms (Roncadora Press). But on that night, I went outside to shut in the hens, then was tempted by the brilliance of the stars to walk across the frozen fields, feeling very cold, looking up into the sky.  This poem arrived, almost intact from the start.  It’s a poem that still takes me back to exactly that moment, that place, that bone-penetrating cold.  Afterwards, what took me longest was to choose the title.