Heidi Williamson reviews
by Maria Taylor
Maria Taylor’s debut collection begins, enchantingly, with a line that brings to mind Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Tarantella’:
‘Melanchrini, do you remember…?’
(‘At Her Grandmother’s Table’).
The unfamiliar term comes across as an affectionate and perhaps nostalgic nickname, yet a footnote tells us this is a generic term for ‘dark-featured young woman’. As both a potential term of endearment and a blanket categorisation, it offers up a paradox at the outset. This neatly introduces one of Taylor’s subjects – the exploration of shifting private and social selves, particularly with reference to the role of women in various cultural and familial contexts.
Taylor’s Greek-Cypriot heritage informs many pieces in the collection, which includes modern re-workings of myths, poems about the meaning of ‘home’, and being between places and cultures (‘Home so far away it turns into a myth’, ‘Par Avion’).
Her preoccupation with place is freshly handled in poems like ‘Soapsud Island’. Reimagining the past of a street (‘London’s laundry’), she pictures the laundress ‘sending home virginity like a birthday present.’ A hundred years later though, the narrator finds it hard to follow the thread: ‘buildings lose their relevance,/ [become] covered in mad, mad mouthfuls of dirty kisses/… a halation of dreck.’
More common metaphors for exile are extended beyond their expected boundaries, as in ‘Gull’:
‘I am here say the voices,
the sky is full of exiles,
scattered so far inland now
you’d think the sea had dried up,
and given away its children.’
In ‘She is Here’, Taylor expertly conflates space and time to evoke place as heritage:
saw her ride the bloodline through
This heritage also comes through in pieces reflecting a strongly matriarchal society, where women even have the audacity to abscond and escape domestic ties:
‘she took hold of the little boy’s hand and ran,
the keys in her picket forgot their purpose.
The washing stayed out for thirty years.’
(‘The Year We Don’t Talk About’)
They have to be reminded of their role:
‘it’s all about the perfect little O
of her mouth…
as a director’s voice echoes,
You’re’ helpless, Ann, helpless.’
(‘A History of Screaming’)
Sex bubbles under the surface, is reigned in by authority (‘her icons scan me from the walls, I keep my knees shut’ (‘Thea’), but mischievously breaks through:
‘it is at this precise moment
I contemplate infidelity.
…his name is Vincent…
I wonder where [his] zip
would take me, somewhere starry.’
(‘Here’s to You’)
In the coming of age poem ‘99/2000’ the speaker enjoys ‘the last hilarious fuck of the twentieth century/ in someone else’s living room.. the Queen looking bemused.’ But this lightness of touch belies a deeper story being told: ‘our skin wasn’t our own/ but we were here, we’d made it into January./ …so many escapees/from the past, unable to wander back. Unhistoried…’
The use of humour to get the reader’s attention is a technique Taylor uses in varying degrees throughout the book. It comes through in Taylor’s enjoyment, for example, in playing with received ideas. In ‘Merman’, she recasts the traditional feminine role against type, and ends with an inclusive meditation on longing:
‘Somewhere, we must all be weeping,
in bathrooms, or alone at the bay.’
And ‘A Day at the Races’ quickly subverts any expectation of Ascot, hats, and royalty by placing us squarely in the daily goings-on at a bookies’: ‘fuck it, he snaps, holding his tiny biro like a knife’.
Taylor is first and foremost concerned, though, with language’s ability to precisely locate an experience or sensation and bring it home to the reader. The opening poem follows that wistful first line with sharp observation:
‘the coral morning
when the pigeons gathered in the yard,
soft winged and purling the air with sound’
(‘At Her Grandmother’s Table’)
Taylor gathers the reader in, nodding in agreement, with her gift for apposite description: ‘the backbone of tigered rosewood’ (‘An Unremarkable Wardrobe’); ‘the draize of sleeping Sundays.’(‘Gull’); ‘time tumbrills by’ (‘The Peveril of the Peak’); ‘a park off the Uxbridge Road… where oxygen is handed out at the gate’ and ‘every memory ends in autumn.’ (‘Leaving’)
She also demonstrates a gift for cracking titles: ‘The Language of Slamming Doors’; ‘The Summer of Controlled Experiments’; ‘On Being a Man Admired by Hemingway’; ‘The Cleaning Lady of Elsinore’; The Murderesses’ Cookbook’.
Her skilful handling of humour, precise imagery, received ideas, the ‘role’ of women, and (seemingly) playful musings on cultural heritage come together in one of my favourite pieces in the book - the tour de force that is ‘Larkin’:
‘September. Someone hands me a copy of Larkin,
thirty eager teenage faces search me for clues…
… In the crisp mornings
birds are tweeting Larkin! Larkin!Larkin!’
….I think I’m going Larkin.
last night when I was asleep, Larkin was on top
of me again grunting. His lenses were all steamed-up…
I fended him off with a hardback of New Women Poets.’
What could just be an amusing word game supplies powerful parallels:
…I’m better now, cured of Larkin. The girl with eczema
has a lighter. I find a charred copy of High Windows
behind the gym with a used condom and a can of Lilt.
Never such innocence, as I think someone once said.’
I especially liked this carrying through to the final poem – an unasked-for answer to Larkin’s ‘Maiden name’:
‘And what did she bring to the altar?
A dowry sack of vowels, a grinding toothache
of consonants. In a few inky moments
she would no longer be foreign or hard to spell.’
(‘Felling a Maiden, i.m. Maria Dimitri-Orthodoxou’)
The grandmother is evoked in this poem too, a nice nod back to the book’s beginning, and a good example of the care with which this collection has been assembled.
I found this a playful and sensual collection – varied, thought-provoking, and enjoyable.
Heidi Williamson’s first collection ‘Electric Shadow’ (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the 2012 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry.