Helen Mort – Division Street

Statement of Prejudice: I’m a fan of Mort’s blog Poetry on the Brain, but haven’t read much of her creative work. Fairly optimistic though.

Reality: Maybe the most impressive poem in Division Street is a miniature, dreamy piece sitting unassumingly towards the end of the collection, ‘Thread’, into which the book’s concerns are quietly herded:

From now, your movement
is a kite’s: you have the sky
and yet you’re tethered
to a man below, an ancestor

who looks on silently
from an old print: your face
in his and his in yours.
Even when he yields the string,

he’s set your course. The breeze
may intervene, but you are lifted
by a finer thread, like all the living,
anchored by the dead.

There’s a tendency in poetry reviewing to ignore the physical presentation of the book (maybe because a lot of reviewers get advance copies without covers? lack of space?), and Division Street is almost actively hampered by its production. There’s an admittedly compelling cover photo, (a man /with a handlebar moustache and a Support the Miners badge on a home-made police helmet facing a row of actual police), but it has little to do with Mort’s book. The lines quoted from ‘Scab’ on the back cover do indeed refer to the miners’ strikes in Sheffield, but it’s the book’s only extended rumination on the topic; a few other poems note the closure of pubs and working men’s clubs, but the action takes place largely in the present. ‘Scab’ itself is a long consideration of the poet’s own feelings of betrayal on taking up a place at Cambridge, a deeply felt and angry exploration of the contrasting worlds of hometown and college; the politics of striking are secondary to the poem’s thinking about loyalty, family and social mobility so tightly composed in ‘Thread’. The close of the poem, and its hostility to closure, is among the book’s most powerful moments.

1 GC

Which is why it is so frustrating that the very book in which such an accomplished poem is printed should so distort the individual poem’s express intentions. Division Street is a sure-footed, occasionally excellent first collection, but Mort very clearly positions the exploration of a divided life (which is not the cover’s simple division of police (state? establishment?) and miners) in the epigram from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with further essays into split allegiances throughout the book. Even the title poem is the story of a failed relationship and a near miss with an STD. I suspect positioning the book as ‘the one about miners’ was an easier sell, but frustrating nonetheless that the quality of the poems should be sold short by their packaging.

Division Street, as indicated above, is at its sharpest when animated by righteous (not in the pejorative sense) anger, as in ‘Fur’, ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’, and the sort-of-sequence ‘Thinspiration Shots’, ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’, which form a far more convincing thematic core than the strikes. ‘Thinspiration Shots’ is a deeply unsettling piece about the eponymous pro-anorexia sites centred around photographs of (especially young) women with eating disorders, justified in this case by ballet aspirations. The poem’s strength comes from Mort’s ability to understand and contextualise systemic pressures without judging or blaming the individual; the pictured ‘models’ are compared to a mermaid, a hummingbird, being winged, a doll in a music box; appealing, traditionally gendered images of unattainable physical refinement that erase the practical needs of the real-life person. ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’ are close readings of the harm caused by such unrealistic expectations; Mort’s ballet instructor who ‘never made the stage’, ‘her eyes/avoiding ours’, using dance as a means of escape. ‘Beauty’ is a much stranger piece, one of several poems in the book that feature a kind of doppelganger (see ‘The Girl Next Door’, more or less a twin poem, appropriately enough). Here, the eponymous figure is an explicitly threatening one – the speaker hides when she knocks the window – and one quite obviously emotionally (if not physically) damaged. The poem’s blunt vocabulary and heavy rhyme give the piece a nightmarish nursery-rhyme atmosphere, the speaker’s incorrigible curiosity and realisation (‘it’s not the face we shrink from but the name’) hiding a complex understanding of the effects of homogenising beauty standards in plain language.

1 PF

Elsewhere there are a number of accomplished individual pieces; ‘Outtakes’ is a neat love poem that harnesses the strategies of filmmaking into emotionally framing unrequited love (‘Look close enough, you told me once,/and anything’s significant’), ‘Pit Closure as a Tarantino Short’ another nice example of cinematic technique in miniature, ‘Year of the Ostrich’ a Kay Ryan-y parable about not quite fitting the bill. There are just as many poems, however, that rely too heavily on the neat resolution of their conceits (‘The Dogs’, ‘Items Carried up Ben Nevis’) or that drift off more obscurely than mysteriously (‘Grasmere Oak’, ‘Fox Miles’), particularly towards the end of the collection, occasionally lapsing into that ‘I’m the teacher you’re the pupil’ tone currently plaguing contemporary poetry.

Tl;dr: Division Street is an unusually solid first collection, well-paced and in places satisfyingly disturbing. Well worth a read.

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