Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday 19 October 2013

"Division Street" by Helen Mort (Chatto and Windus, 2013)

I think her work will appeal to a wide range of readers - not least, older ones. It doesn't try to be too clever, and some familiar themes are covered. There are many quotable lines and even some rhyming couplets. Often there's a link between successive poems. The most common sweep within poems is from the impersonal via a pace-changing stanza to a memory (often of childhood) that explains the poem's journey.

  • George's obsession with fingerprints ends with a memory of childhood guilt.
  • "The lawn was freezing over
    In the kitchen, dad sifts flour,/ still panning for something
    " (p.2)
  • "At the height of his illness, Piranesi sketched imaginary/ prison cells
    my father sat transfixed by/ the spin and judder of the washing machine:/ chainless, free, unable to get up
    " (p.26)
  • "You say you've never see a Broken Spectre
    I'm running up the frown-lines of the kill,/ I'm keeping to a track/ you pointed out to me ten years ago.
    " (p.56)

When there is an "I" it often arrives late. In several poems the self seeks a suitable correlative

  • Identification with some one/thing else - "Deer", "The Girl Next Door", "Fox Miles", "The Dogs"
  • Escaping from self - "I stopped/ and let my heart go on ahead of me" (p.6), "the miles you ran from home, near fainting,/ trying to give yourself the slip" (p.34))
  • Naming - the poet's surname features at the end of a few pieces, and is the main topic of "The French for Death".

There are some neat conceits and imagery whose appropriateness makes me think I've heard them before (I might even have read some of these poems before), or would like to use them myself -

  • "my steps/ ruining the snow's unopened envelope" (p.18)
  • "you were the waterwheel,/ I the dull silver it must/ catch and release/ and cannot catch" ("Litton Mill")
  • "your movement/ is a kite's ... tethered/ to a man below, an ancestor ... Even when he yields the string,// he sets your course ... like all the living,/ anchored by the dead" ("Thread")
  • "a hearse// gave way to me near Jesus Lane// and I sprinted on, noting the driver,/ black-capped, glancing at his watch, certain he'd overtake before too long" ("Coffin Path")
  • "the North/ lighting its own touchpaper and standing back" (Aurora Borealis)

The 6 page "Scab" begins amongst Sheffield Miners, using rather too much religious imagery - "the wine/ turning to water in the pubs,/ the tax man ransacking the Church,/ plenty of room at every inn./ And watch: a car flares/ into a burning bush". This is contrasted with Cambridge college life - "nod from left to right,/ mutter the Latin underneath your breath/ not knowing if it's thanks or blasphemy/ and pass it anti-clockwise with a final nod./ The trick's in moving artlessly" (p.21). A re-enactment of the police/miner clash is then described (involving 800 people it was staged by a conceptual artist). The poem's final stanza's ties together some of the poem's themes, not least "identification with place", "life as a rehearsal - doing vs recording", and how both opportunities and death might gate-crash -

One day, it crashes through
your windowpane; the stone,
the word, the fallen star. 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.

I liked "Fagan's", about a pub quiz ("What links the fire of London and the colour blue?/ I'm wondering if a match would be enough/ or if there's really no smoke without you"), "Rag & Bone", "The Year of the Ostrich" ("We've lost the zodiacs that show it ... for surely there must be a sign/ for those of us with such unlikely grace,/ who hide our heads, or bear the weight/ of wings that will not lift us."), and perhaps "End". I wasn't so keen on "Carnation", "Night" (suspiciously short lines leading to an idea I've heard before), and "The Complete Works of Anonymous" (too close to what I've read before). "Common Names" is one of several poems where the line-breaks do nothing. p.58 lacks a page number.

Other reviews

  • Todd Swift (Poetry)
  • John Field
  • Neil Fulwood (Five Leaves)
  • Antiphon
  • Suzi Feay (Independent) ("There’s been a buzz around Helen Mort for a while, and her debut ... doesn’t disappoint.")
  • James Trevelyan (mouth london) ("Division Street must be one of the most anticipated debut collections in some years")
  • Jessica Mayhew (Eyewear)
  • "There is a redolence of the poetry workshop about every poem in the collection, an idea or a concept ... worked to exhaustion ... The rhythm is often limp, the ideas tired (and clichéd)" - WS Milne

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