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Division Street by Helen Mort – review


Helen Mort's debut collection is a finely wrought disappearing act

Helen Mort keeps giving herself the slip. The beauty of her debut collection, Division Street, is partly the sense that it has been written against the clock. Every poem is on the move. Her parents might appear as fixed points: a father sifting flour in the kitchen, a mother standing at a window, but Helen Mort herself – like time – does not settle. The Complete Works of Anonymous is especially revealing. Beyond the sympathetic curiosity of the first verse is the defining and less usual wish in the second to cast off into a nameless freedom and leave self behind.

There are several poems in which this happens. This is at its most physical in Thinspiration Shots, in which Mort describes the alarming way dancers starve themselves, their vanishing acts. When she says "you", she seems to remember herself: "The miles you ran from home, near fainting/ Trying to give yourself the slip." There are other less obscure ways in which self can be subsumed – such as becoming the stuff of which other people's dreams are made (explored in the excellent Other People's Dreams). And, in The Girl Next Door, she welcomes in an alter ego, a casual imposter who steals up on her in every sense. It's a terrific poem, written with a downbeat power that protects it from contrivance: "First she came to borrow sugar. Sunday afternoons/ she'd cadge a pint of milk."

Little by little, the girl from next door moves in on the narrative until: "I find excuses/ not to leave the house; the evening rain,/ the biting wind. Last night she said my name./ It suited her." It is a more theatrical way of sidestepping self. Throughout, this poetry has sharp peripheral vision – with sightings of deer and foxes. It is the elusiveness of the animals that seems to appeal, and their glamorous anonymity.

Ambitious but least convincing is the long poem about the 1984 Sheffield riots (Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985). The poem feels willed and riskily inauthentic. She attempts, not altogether successfully, to get round the problem: "This is a reconstruction. Nobody/ will get hurt." But her attempt to connect South Yorkshire's picketing miners with life as a Cambridge undergraduate feels forced: "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." Anonymity, once again, might have reprieved.

The poems have an elegiac quality, though they often lack any reason to grieve beyond the melancholy passing of time. Yet the style is often satisfyingly Orwellian– no long words where a shorter one would serve. Nor is she a poetic detective assisting with mysteries. She knows when to let be and let go. In an archipelago of poems about the north, she explores Shetland: "We walk to Windhoose, find a barn even the ghosts/ have left, a sheep's spine turning on a string,/ a name reduced to nothing but its sound./ Our silences become the better part of us."

In the same way that she favours silence, she is a winter poet who prefers bare branches to opulent springs. Snow piles into more than one poem. And one of her finest, Rag & Bone, builds to an all-inclusive conceit about salvage at the dead end of the year: "The winter trees still reaching out for all the leaves they lost." These are lines eclipsed only by the collection's most effortlessly beautiful image (from Coffin Path): "Today the dark's grown courteous:/ shadows seem to step aside/ to let me pass."

The Complete Works of Anonymous

I'd like to find it: leather-bound, unlikely
in the small-town library, somewhere
between Abbs and Ashbery, pages curling
like a song: On Glasgow Rain, A Kiss for Marilyn,
The Hidden Life of Honey Bees, a hundred titles
that I'd seen in old anthologies, wondered
at the hand behind them, said that word aloud –
Anon. Anon, a kind of lullaby.

I'll raise a glass to dear Anonymous: the old
familiar anti-signature, the simple courage
of that mark. 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.

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