REVIEW by Michael NottNWR Issue 103
by Helen Mort
Shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, Helen Mort’s debut collection Division Street
exhibits the kind of poise and delicacy one would expect from a seasoned professional, but in some senses Mort is just that: five-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet Award, recipient of an Eric Gregory Award in 2007, two-time pamphleteer with ‘the shape of every box’ and ‘a pint for the ghost’, and youngest ever poet-in-residence at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. An impressive résumé for a poet aged less than thirty, yet, given the collection’s preoccupation with names, naming, and identity, you could be forgiven for thinking that none of this matters for Mort, and that the real work starts with Division Street
. This is evident from the first poem, ‘The French for Death’:
I trampled ants on the quay at Dieppe, dawdling
by the desk where they wouldn’t take yes for an answer;
yes, it was our name and spelled just so –
Dad repeated it in Oldham’s finest guttural,
we shook our heads at Moor and Maud and Morden.
These particularities of name and identity permeate Division Street
and highlight the strength of Mort’s poetry of place, the real focal point of her work. In this journey home of sorts – Dieppe is about as exotic as it gets – Mort’s poem draws the reader to the crux of the collection: the north of England. Mort guides us through curious locales: ‘Lowedges’, a district in Sheffield, ‘where the city / smooths its skirt down in the name of modesty’; we see, in ‘Carnation’, that ‘They’ve built a Body Shop / in the old butchers’ district – / caul and pig skin giving way / to coconut oil, jojoba;’ we meet the eponymous ‘Stainless Stephen’, a Sheffield comedian, ‘dressed up to the nines / in stainless shoes, a plated vest, / two spoons for a bow tie.’
Mort’s investment in the past inflects the present, and nowhere is this more evident than ‘Scab’, the collection’s bristling sequence. Mort approaches the miners’ strikes of the mid-1980s from what she calls ‘a bit of a slant’, using the ‘idea of having crossed an invisible picket line’ during her time at Cambridge University. This engagement with boundaries, with thresholds – their observance and disturbance – provides the crucial thread linking the poems. From the journey across the English Channel and ‘Oldham’s finest guttural’ in ‘The French for Death’, Mort whisks us, in ‘Scab’, across the social picket line to Cambridge lawns:
Summer is fish-tail ballgowns,
free champagne, a wine
everyone else is able to pronounce....
The repetition of long vowels in ‘tail’ and ‘champagne’, ‘ballgowns’ and ‘pronounce’ imitate the accents of ‘everyone else’, evoking Mort’s attention to the nuances of speech which reinforce these invisible picket lines. Such is the scale of Mort’s achievement here, entwining the historical and personal perspectives, the reader, like Mort’s narrator, is ‘left / to guess which picket line / you crossed’.
Outside the sequences ‘Scab’ and ‘North of Everywhere’, Mort’s animal poems are her most engaging. ‘The Dogs’, for example, is playful yet poignant, mixing observations such as ‘It’s not acceptable to taste the grass or roll in moss until / I’m musked with it’ with ‘I’ll not know love like theirs, observed in mute proximity’. ‘Fox Miles’ continues the idea of thresholds, blurring the boundaries between human and animal, and contains some of Mort’s most exquisitely observed lines:
She turns her face. Her eyes flare
in the artificial light, and then
she finds a trapdoor in the night.
Mort possesses the imagination to siphon, from seemingly ordinary localities and events, secret narratives and encounters. These she infuses into her poems to give them dramatic tensions, both social and personal. This subtle blend demonstrates the cleverness, seriousness, and wit of Mort’s work. While some of the shorter poems do seem raw, Division Street
as a whole is elegant, discriminating, and measured, full of vivid moments. This is a striking first collection and one gets the sense that Mort is just warming up.
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previous review: Florilingua
next review: Crossing the North Sea