Issue 9


Autumn 2013

 

Helen Mort, Division Street, Chatto and Windus, 62pp, £12.00

The cover of Division Street offers a confrontational black-and-white photo of a miner squaring up to a police line taken during the Miners’ Strike of 1984. It has a graffiti-like font and the cover quotes Mort’s poem ‘Scab’:

A stone is lobbed in ’84,
hangs like a star over Orgreave.
Welcome to Sheffield. Borderland,

These, together with the chosen volume title, Division Street (a clever title, this being a central road in Mort’s home town of Sheffield, as well as itself a clear metaphor) seem to make it obvious what this book is about: social division, political strife, the North-South divide, class conflict. 

Not so.

Certainly there are elements of division, separation, difference, conflict of different kinds through the volume, but this foregrounding by the publisher rather misrepresents the book, I think. It’s a presentation which appears to be a marketing ploy to sell the book through the drama of that particular conflict, using the friction of its social and political divide to promote a misleading idea of the book. In fact the title poem has nothing to do with the miners, or any socio-political agenda. It concerns, instead, a broken relationship. Only the single poem ‘Scab’ explicitly (searingly, viscerally) takes that political subject (though there are a couple of allusive moments placed in other poems, such as a man ‘felled by bricks / in the strike’ in ‘Twenty Two Words for Snow’). Even here, though, the strike is not the subject, but the context, the framework for what is essentially a personal poem examining a working-class Northerner experiencing the privileges of an elitist Cambridge education. 

The poem echoes exactly for me, as my home town , parents’ class and Oxbridge education parallel hers. But I think the experiences and divisions personalised in ‘Scab’ will connect with the experience of many in the poetry-reading audience, the upwardly mobile, the educated middle classes,  those with baby-boomer parents or grandparents , never having had it so good. Anyone who likes to hear to hear people ‘telling me how far I’ve come’ yet are nagged by the continuing sense they’ve somehow betrayed the place and people they’ve come from, or who feel the guilt of espousing something ostensibly elitist (the practice of poetry perhaps?) will find themselves here: 

You’re left
to guess which picket line
you crossed – a gilded College gate, 
a better supermarket, the entrance
to your flat where, even now, someone
has scrawled the worst insult they can – 
a name. Look close. It’s yours.

So, personally, I’m grateful to Helen Mort for this. I couldn’t have expressed so succinctly or aptly the complex yet bare emotions of my own experienced alienation or social guilt, as she does in ‘Scab’.

So, yes, the poetry is about division, but it’s the personal  landscape that Mort most often wants to explore not the political. It seems to me the poems are more concerned with the poet’s sense of difference, separation, than any other divide. 

Sometimes they take us close to the poet’s real experience (it seems). Sometimes we are deftly kept at a decent distance through a witty construction or an unusually apt conceit. I especially like ‘The Year of the Ostrich’ in this respect, even though it’s one of the slighter poems. It’s constructed to carry the single conceit that there should be (in the zodiac, the Chinese Year) a ‘sign of the Ostrich’:

for those of us with such unlikely grace,
who hide our heads, or bear the weight
of wings that will not lift us.

I try not to use words like ‘brilliant’ in reviews, partly because its meaning is devalued, and partly because it’s an appellation hard to justify. But it strikes me that Mort’s formulation here is, simply, brilliant. It’s inspired and it shines. It’s a perfect image requiring no explication, the sort of line that stays with you permanently once heard, as the exact description of a difficult idea - that particular kind of frustrated ability, flawed ambition, failed desire, inadequacy of aspiration where the very sense of potential holds us back. This poet may, perhaps, be saying she is shy of her abilities, but in this poem the ostrich is a very convincing swan.

Mort’s poetry is full of subtlety like this, which is why I’m a little disappointed in the unsubtlety of the marketing approach – although it does seem to have worked, so perhaps there’s a lesson for us all there. 

She has an admirable delicacy of touch which refrains from overstating and can make a poem wonderful. One motto for the book, which is itself proof of the pudding, is:

Look close enough, you told me once,
and anything’s significant. This morning,
when you showed me to the door,
your fingers touched my elbow for a second.

(‘Outtakes’)

Mort looks closely, finds the telling detail, offers us a closeup from which we extract significance. Poems which may appear superficially slick or focused on the craft (and she is very deft – I’ve used that word twice now – for example, in her manipulation of rhyme, such as the ‘buried’ internal rhymes in some of the poems) belie the care with which tone and trails of suggestion are gently laid. 

Perhaps she may settle for a simple puzzle. For example, the opening poem has the title ‘The French for Death’, using her own name to make another personal statement. We, of course, have firstly to translate it, then to understand it as the poet’s name, then apply it to the particular workings of the poem. 

Or ‘Division Street’ itself, which places a break-up in a youth-trendy part of town, giving us just the vaguest pointers to a back story - ‘At the clinic, they asked if I’d tattoos’ and :

your head-down walk
along Division Street, slower each week, pausing
by the pubs, their windows so dim you see
nothing but your own reflection.

It doesn’t take much to construct an explanation of the break-up from this in terms of the ex-partner’s selfishness, but we’re left to guess whether what that almost-missed word ‘clinic’ signals, and all our guesses (AIDS? abortion?) breed empathy for the protagonist.

Running two frames of reference (possibly more) in a poem can also allow the poet to switch horses in midstream, creating that exciting shift of perspective or mood which can make (or perhaps break) an otherwise merely okayish poem. Mort is one of those poets always on the look-out for the odd or unusual in the world, from which an idea might spiral, but rarely contents herself with merely noting such things. They always lead elsewhere, and sometimes, therefore, bring surprise. ‘Common Names’, for example, seems a fun but limited idea: ‘Somewhere there is a spider called Harrison Ford’. She pursues the idea of strangely named natural phenomena for a two stanzas, then vaults to a horse of a different colour:

there are minor planets christened
Elvis, Nietzsche, Mr Spock. Forgive me if I looked up
past your face, to see those nearly silver drops
make rivers in the dark, and, for a moment, 
thought there might be stars named after us.

Not too far-fetched an aspiration for this ostrich divided from herself, I think.

 

NW

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