Helen Mort’s Division Street (Chatto & Windus, 2013) is a stunning debut collection. It covers a lot of ground in terms of subject matter and geography, from peaks of mountains to the northern lights. There is a musicality and playfulness about the poetry, which while adept is never inaccessible. Michael Symmons Roberts notes on the backcover, ‘underlying it all is the bedrock of the north of England’. Mort mines her own experience and shapes it into rhythms and melodies that are as grand as they are human. I’ve read few collections which have such honest, emotional resonance.
In ‘Beauty’, we are told ‘it’s not the face we shrink from but the name’. Seeing and experience are liberated from the social constructs of language, of naming. The ‘name’ is symbolic of ordered experience; it gives us an idea of how something should be approached. This idea is more explicitly considered in ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’:
on the vessel of a simple verse, proofing our lines,
Though here she may mourn a lack of trust in words, Mort’s poetry exemplifies a confidence in voice. As in Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost, the music of the poetry is subtle on the page but obvious when you read it aloud. Rhyme features heavily throughout though in some poems like in Rag & Bone and The Girl Next Door there are only swipes of it. Rhyme is a double-edged sword: when done well you have some of the most memorable, powerful, and funny lines in poetry. When done badly it sounds amateur. Mort’s rhymes are well-judged, and compliment some of the most touching poems in the collection. ‘Take Notes’ is a very modern couplet sonnet, telling the story of a woman waiting to find out if she’s pregnant. Her experience is ordered (and perhaps controlled) through formal devices as if they are a defense mechanism: ‘It’s true. Most days I plunder what I see,/Play deaf unless a poem answers me.’ In the hands of a less accomplished poet these could easily come across as twee, but Mort skillfully balances this out with straightforward sensibilities: ‘I was three weeks late. The air was damp and hot.’ Despite the focus on the individual, her ears are always open to the community around her. She is aware of ‘each lit window in town’.
At times Mort perfectly captures the most vulnerable human experiences, in a way which would be recognisable and understandable to those with no interest in poetry. In ‘Thinspiration Shots’ she produces the perfect description of eating disorders, particularly anorexia, as ‘trying to give yourself the slip’. There is a dark double meaning in the description of emptying the bladder after being weighed: ‘crouch above the cool/white bowl and piss it all away.’ The act of excessive drinking to trick the scales is an ultimately self-destructive act. At the end the speaker avoids the ‘thinspiration’: ‘Tonight/you look away. You close the page.’ Hanging off the edge of the second to last line, ‘Tonight’ is a threat, as if another night the speaker may not have the strength to look away.
Division Street can be read as an exploration of political and personal conflicts, down to the conflict we have with our own minds and bodies. It is ambitious, engaging, and can be read and re-read, each time yielding a new discovery. Mort’s next collection ‘No Map Could Show Them’ will be published by Chatto & Windus.