Issue Four

Summer 2012

 

Julie Mellor, Breathing through our Bones,  24pp, £5.00
Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S1 2DS

Breathing Through Our Bones is a pamphlet often rooted in place, and a familiarity with locale that is destabilised by the recurring theme of place as temporal, as well as spatial. The poems explore the transiency of dwelling, whether in a small, domestic setting, such as in "The Pantry", or somewhere more expansive. The title poem opens the collection with a paleontological landscape described in concise, visual language:

deep down in the seams of the earth, the wings
of the first dragonflies, the flattened shells of crabs,
lie imprinted in coal, along with the thigh bones
of tyrannosaurus rex, which hold evidence

of air sacs, the pneumatisation that enables
birds to fly …

This strange earth is presented in relation to the more immediate environment of "… the tangled gardens of West Street, / … heaped remains of old bathrooms, carcasses / of kitchens …" The contrast between the coal seams littered with dragonfly remains and gardens littered with kitchen carcass is well crafted, although it seems artificially dualistic to present these landscapes at their most oppositional. However, the end of the poem subverts this parallel, bringing them and us inescapably together: "… Here in these towns where everyone / is someone’s cousin twice removed, / we are all breathing through our bones."

This conjuring of past as present, the shadowy layers underpinning the everyday, takes on many forms, and contributes to the coherence of the collection.

In "Autobiography", the speaker begins a journey into her own past as the "shadow / on a blue hanger that once belonged / to my mother’s sister". The strongest section of the poem describes the great great grandmother’s death:

shot in an upstairs room

of the Blacksmith’s Arms,
the landlord’s lover,
two children to him, another

on the way. Three hours to die,
bleeding through floorboards,
a last kiss on her dying breath.

There is a tendency to explain the poignancy of the poem. In the final stanza, the speaker explains how she knows what’s gone before, "because I’m the daughter / in this history of mothers". The value of this ancestry to the speaker, that she feels it as intrinsic to herself, is clear, and potentially more powerful, without this closing statement.

In "Inventory", the lives of those described are nameless, presented indirectly through household minutiae, a list that subtly generates vivid images of place and character:

A bed frame hoisted to the kitchen ceiling
used as a rack to dry washing and flat cakes,

socks nailed to the mantelpiece, hanging
like rabbit skins, steaming dry.

But here, too, there’s a tendency to explain, with the delicate image of the penultimate line brought down by the ending: "and a child … / threads of flax falling like snow from his hair, / trapped between his world and mine."

The imaginative leaps the poems make are engaging, from the personification of "Hen Brook" to the "Whisk" turning like "the winding gear at Dodworth pit". Again, it is Mellor’s playful relationship with place that informs these poems, and the precision of her language, landscapes and narratives that pulls you in.

Breathing Through Our Bones was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy.


Angelina Ayers

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