Guest Review: Williamson On Morley


Heidi Williamson reviews
Snow Child
by Abegail Morley

Abegail Morley’s second poetry collection comes with a classy pedigree. Her debut, How to pour madness into a teacup was short-listed for the 2010 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Although it’s only two years since her first collection, where other poets might have rushed together new material into a less coherent book, Morley’s work is well-developed, keenly edited, and arranged to give the maximum power to each poem, as well as the narrative arc of the collection as a whole.

The subject-matter is familiar – charting the development of a relationship, loss and betrayal, as well as emotional break-down. But the power, honesty, and at times stunning rawness of Morley’s voice set these pieces apart. From ‘Unstable’ beginnings to ‘The last moment’, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a writer in total control of her (extremely emotionally volatile) material.

There is humour here too, in unexpected places. Morley knows how to give the reader a breather after a punch to the heart.

Morley is a spare writer who focuses down to details with a clear eye. Light is a key motif and a key tool for dramatically spotlighting occurrences: ’your halo is only the end of light/ passing into tomorrow’  (‘Visitor’); ‘only a squat of light/ hunches at the far side’ (‘Angler’). She also has an astute ear for everyday sounds: leaves ‘witter in the wind’ (‘Mud’).

The title poem in particular deserves a mention for its candid portrayal of loss that the narrator doesn’t feel permitted to feel as loss. It begins:

‘I didn’t think you
would exist this much’

(‘Snow Child’)

and has at its core a shocking image of the physicality of grief:

‘I retch.
There are teeth in it.’

Key themes in the collection coalesce in this piece: the boundaries of the mind, body, and other; self-actualisation and disintegration; and the difficulty of holding on to any kind of anchorage in life.

Relationships provide support, growth, and light: ‘Be good to each other then surrender’ as well as dissatisfaction: ‘I think he’ll put his thumb/ in the dimple on my chin, but he doesn’t’ (‘I learn this from him’). The humour is dark and very down to earth: ‘Now he’s here, he’s pissing me off’ (‘Moved in’).

From the outset, she exposes the power struggle in the couple’s developing relationship: ‘I will close my mouth on yours./ That’ll be the end of it.’ (‘Your best side’); ‘My bones…arranged how he likes them’ (‘Flash photography’); ‘my breath was his not mine’ (‘Flash photography’).

Given the narrator’s delicate state of mind from recent episodes of mental illness, self-protection and self-harm start to intermingle:

‘[She] smothers her face in a towel
to hold her name safely in her mouth’

(‘Quotidian’)

The descriptions of experiencing manic and depressive states have an impressive lucidity:

‘the air remembers you. It shifts its weight,
waits by the door to be freed.’

            (‘After depression’)

In ‘Manic episode’, Morley’s description of the loss of the narrator’s sense of self touchingly echoes Norman MacCaig at his most elegiac: ‘Everywhere I go I’ve died.’

When the relationship ends in betrayal (‘He steals the sense from her sentence’, ‘Breaking up’), the speaker is movingly child-like in her denial it is over:

‘I want your footprint. Just one.
You can’t go anywhere with one.’

(‘Coffee’)

Morley shows how we fail to truly connect to the world, and at times our own selves, as well as each other.

It’s interesting to compare this collection to Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture – another book charting a developing and eventually failing relationship. While Duffy’s work is obviously expertly handled, even the sadder poems have an in-built vitality that I find undercuts the pain experienced by the narrator. Morley’s narrative has more baggage attached to it – loss of a child, a fragile hold on the narrator’s sense of self – and in poems like ‘Daffodils’, ‘Visitor’, ‘Room’, and ‘Against the rain’, she effectively demonstrates how loss permeates every object, experience, and future path. As the narrator says in another poem: ‘There is urgency in my loss’ (‘Family album’). And it feels the more real to me for that.

The collection ends on a precarious but hopeful note where the narrator desires stability but recognises life isn’t finished with her yet. She ‘want[s] to come home to stillness’ but instead finds herself ‘skidding along the road, trying to catch myself before/ I disappear from view’ (‘The last moment’). This is a book about how we try to be open to love, pain, and all the world has to offer, and keep our heads above water, even if only just, and if at times slipping under.

It’s also worth saying something about the production values of this book. The striking cover illustration (it made me look up the artist’s website) immediately appealed to me and it suited the material perfectly. And it’s beautifully produced – a book you want to hold in your hand and read. I’d recommend doing just that. 

Heidi Williamson’s first collection Electric Shadow (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. 

Comments

Poetry Pleases! said…
Dear Heidi

Thoughtful review. I hope that Abegail resolves her problems, poetically or otherwise. The great recent female poet of mental illness is, of course, Elizabeth Jennings whose collected poems are a revelation.

Best wishes from Simon
elly said…
Thanks, Heidi Williamson, for your well-written, perceptive review of "Snow Child".

I've been following Abegail Morley's poetic career closely, and have copies of her two collections on my book shelf. I recommend them both highly.

Your thoughts on the main themes and motifs have me nodding my head in agreement. I'm also very interested in your thoughts on the "narrative arc". One of the things I enjoy so much about Morley's work is that she leaves wiggle room for each reader's interpretations. There certainly does feel to be a unifying tone / speaker's voice but I love how Morley does not spell things out for us. Sometimes I read the collection as the story involving one speaker and one relationship; but more often than not, I imagine it being more than one relationship; I get the feeling of a speaker looking back over a long life-time of experiences.

I agree that Morley is "a writer in total control of her (extremely emotionally volatile) material."

Williamson's review and the whole thing of writing well about emotions got me hunting up an article that I came across a while ago. It's about how poets manage to produce authentic, "quality" poems when writing about emotions. And Morley has the ability to do this.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4241/the-art-of-poetry-no-10-robert-creeley

Here’s an excerpt:
INTERVIEWER
...A side issue here, perhaps. Does an artist's “sincerity” have any influence on the quality of his work? Can a poet write good poems about a subject if he has no feeling about it?
CREELEY
I don't see how. If one respects Pound's measure of “Only emotion endures,” and “Nothing counts save the quality of the emotion,” then having no feelings about something seems to prohibit the possibility of that kind of quality entering. At the same time, there are many ways of feeling about things; it may be that—as in the case of poems by Ted Berrigan—one is made to feel by the fact that there is no attachment of subjective feeling to the words. It's a very subtle question. I remember one time Irving Layton wrote a very moving poem, “Elegy for Fred Smith.” Later Gael Turnbull, very impressed by the poem, said to him, “You must feel very badly that your friend has died, because your poem concerning this fact is very, very moving.” And Irving then explained that there was no man named Smith; he simply wanted to write this kind of poem. But you see, he wanted the feeling too; he wanted to gain the way one might feel in confronting such a possibility. There wasn't, as it happened, a real fact that provoked this poem, but there was certainly a feeling involved. And it was certainly a “subject” that Irving had “feeling” about. Of course, this issue of sincerity in itself can be a kind of refuge of fools. I am sure that Senator Goldwater was sincere in certain ways, but that shouldn't protect him from a hostile judgment. The zealot is often sincere. But I mean sincerity in the sense that goes back to Pound, that ideogram he notes: man standing by his word. That kind of sincerity has always been important to me—to what I'm doing....

Thanks again for the review. And yes, "Snow Child" is a great collection.

Elly Nobbs
Anonymous said…
Thanks Heidi for such a sensitive and close reading of the text. I found it particularly interesting when you said, “Morley’s narrative has more baggage” – this is also true of the reader. When a poet writes about the universal themes of loss whether physical, emotional or mental, the poem is interpreted differently by each reader - because each reader brings their own personal baggage to the reading.

I was very interested in Elly Nobbs’ comments about authenticity of the writer’s voice when talking about emotions. The article she posted from The Paris Review deals with that idea well; the poet needs to convince the reader of the authenticity, but the reader needs to be aware of not confusing the art with the artist. As Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” I agree with Elly Nobbs; it is the words we should focus on, not the poet.