Division Street by Helen Mort
24th Feb 2014
Helen Mort‘s debut collection is ghoulish, and the first poem establishes the macabre tone that comes from learning early on that the poet’s surname is ‘The French for Death’.
Mort has an excellent eye for imagery – her deer walk on ‘pound-coin coloured hooves’ – and a careful choice of words, but the pervading atmosphere is one of stillness, or marking time. The narrator searches for the Inuit word for waiting, in a place where to tarry and linger is as common as arctic snow, and
in this town where we don’t have
twenty-two words for anything
In Mort’s unholy depiction of Sheffield, wine turns to water in pubs and the Orgreave miner’s strike of 1984 is re-cast against the nativity scene:
Star of Orgreave, star of light, star
of fucking royal shite. Westward leading,
kids want feeding, guide us to your
Later in this, the longest poem of the collection, Mort returns to the scene as rendered in Jeremy Deller‘s 2001 film, in which actors were asked to reenact the clash between police and picketing miners. There is the sense of marking time again, in ‘Stainless Stephen’, which notes that
The jukebox hasn’t changed its tune
and ‘Rag and Bone’:
… lay claim
to every disused shop, the winter trees
still reaching out for all the leaves they lost.
The collection then travels to northernmost Britain, to Shetland, where the elements have a stronger hold on the land and the island begins to erode:
Wind-whittled, turned on the sea’s lathe too long
There is also a compelling fixation on the prophetic or performative nature of words and what they say about their users. From the opening remarks on her own morbid etymology, Mort returns over and over to unsaid names, toying with an Adamic power, as in ‘Beauty’:
it’s not the face we shrink from but the name
and, differently, in ‘Common Names’, in which the poet ponders the new species discovered and named for actors and rock stars. Perhaps the best concept of the collection is ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’ – a brilliant publishing idea and a homage to the unnamed:
… I wish that each of us
could put such trust in words we’d spend a lifetime
on the vessel of a single verse, proofing our lines,
only to unmoor them from our names.
Mort admires, and to some extent fulfils, ‘anti-signature’ poetry. Subtle internal rhymes match her understated excellence with a rhythm that binds verses but is also evasive, almost anonymous. Many of the best poems in Division Street are full of art but bereft of ego, not just because Mort has more important subjects to dwell on, but also because writing is a waiting game and authorship is always deferred. All is note-taking for the future:
… Most days, I plunder what I see,
play deaf unless a poem answers me.
Helen Mort was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prize in 2013. She is five times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award; in 2007 she won the Eric Gregory Award and in 2008, the Manchester Young Writer Prize. She spent 2010 as poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust. This year, Mort will be contributing to the For Books’ Sake poetry anthology, Furies. For your chance to feature alongside this great poet, please submit your entry here.