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GUEST REVIEW: MAYHEW ON MORT



Division Street
By Helen Mort

And what she sees she cannot tell,
But what she knows of distances,
And doesn’t say, I know as well.

(‘Fox Miles’)

Division Street is a collection marked by distance. Stirred by a sighting of a vixen in ‘Fox Miles,’ Helen Mort sees this knowledge embodied by, and shared with, the fox. There are many landscapes travelled in this collection, landscapes that are often strange, or disorientating. However, the poet handles these with subtlety, knowing what to keep concealed to brighten her scenes. This is a collection of division and reconciliation; whether of the miners’ conflict, relationships gone awry, or journeying to unknown places, things rendered are brought back together with the poet’s delicate touch.      

Mort’s fascination with distance is introduced in the first poem:

...staring out to sea, as if, in the distance
there’s the spindle of a shipwreck,
prow angled to a far country.

(‘The French for Death’)

The French for Death’ reveals an interplay between life and death, where the poet in her youth becomes, ‘a child from the underworld in red sandals/ and a Disney t-shirt.’ The poet’s name, despite the difficulties of translation, acts as an anchor; the distance here is symbolic, an imagined shipwreck. This exploration of name and distance culminates in ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous:’

...we’d spend a lifetime
on the vessel of a single verse, proofing our lines,
only to unmoor them from our names.

(‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’)

Again, the use of sea imagery here shows distance, but this time, the distance of personal obscurity.

The distance explored in this collection is also physical. Mort explores the landscapes of the North with a lively eye, always giving a sense of travel. The ‘North of Everywhere’ sequence emphasises this revision of location, when Mort says: ‘dragged from a latitude/ I couldn’t even dream,’ her body becoming the compass needle (‘North of Everywhere: I. Hermaness’). In the second poem of the sequence, ‘Shetland,’ the words ring with the sound of the wind that the poet evokes:

Wind-whittled, turned on the sea’s lathe too long,
...the trees scoured off, the houses pared down
to their stones, the animals less skin than bone.

(‘North of Everywhere: II. Shetland’)  

The sound echoed through the lines emphasises the sparse emptiness of the text. This adds to a sense of displacement that threads throughout the sequence. The fourth poem ‘Aurora Borealis,’ re-imagines the landscape of Shetland in the form of a B movie:

the Shetland hills huge UFOs,
or the whole island slumbering beast whose back
we clung to...
(‘North of Everywhere: IV. Aurora Borealis’)  

The strangeness of this third stanza reflects the disorientation of the characters, leading to the bathetic fourth stanza, where the characters miss ‘the sky’s brief fire’ because they are looking down at their feet.

Mort is skilled at hazing reality and fantasy in her poetry, without losing her anchor. In ‘Deer,’ the speaker recounts ‘The deer my mother swears to God we never saw.’ (‘Deer’) The memory of the animals brightens with every recall, becoming almost mythic, and yet still rooted in the day to day, stepping with ‘pound-coin-coloured hooves.’ There is a moment of surprise when the speaker discovers her mother watching the much-denied deer.   

One of the strengths of Division Street is the location and portrayal of the gaps between – between miners and police, between people in relationships, between cities. In ‘Rag and Bone,’ the speaker reclaims objects that are ghosted by others, ‘a mattress moulded by another’s bones.’ They lay claim to this between world:

No-one will miss
the world tonight. Let’s have the lot.

(‘Rag and Bone’)
   
The title of the collection and poem ‘Division Street’ is taken from the name of a street in Sheffield. We see the larger conflict between miners and police in ‘Scab,’ violence hanging over the text like the stone that was ‘lobbed in 84.’ However, where Mort presents separation, she also shows reconciliation; later, in the same sequence, miners and policeman come together in a re-enactment.  

Mort is adept at zooming into these microcosms of personal relationships from a wider landscape. ‘Outtakes’ discusses the deconstruction of film shots, lingering on the mechanics of desire, showing, ‘a leopard cub/ who scrupulously licks each paw.’ This poem shows the reader how:

It’s all a matter of perspective.
Look close enough, you told me once,
And anything’s significant.   

(‘Outtakes’)

The poem reveals a separation between two people through film, ending with the striking image of watching life go on from outside, through lit windows. The way that lives come together is another interesting thread throughout the collection. In ‘Other People’s Dreams,’ Mort explores the lives we have in other people’s heads with a skilful, light touch, before gathering these divisions in her own dream:

Each morning, you must gather up these lives
and hold them tight, walk carefully downstairs,
slow as the girl in your own brief dream...

(‘Other People’s Dreams’)
           
In ‘Outtakes,’ Mort recounts:

It’s all a matter of perspective.
Look close enough, you told me once,
and anything’s significant...

(‘Outtakes’)

This sense of perspective is what really shines through Division Street. Whether it’s the backwards-looking view of the miner/police conflicts, the minutiae of disintegrating relationships, or the distance of an unknown landscape, Mort’s perspective is clear and focused. Division Street is an accomplished and engaging debut.  

Jessica Mayhew is a young British poet.
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