Division Street – Helen Mort


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.


As an opener, ‘The French for Death’ situates the volume as semi-autobiography. The title, for the poet’s surname ‘Mort’, shows that the personal is present but made distant by translation. It is  also a coming of age narrative. The young Mort, bringer of death to the ants, is immortalised by the poem. Though reference to her name leads us to assume this is a memory, otherworldly touchstones of the crossing to the underworld lift the subject from earthly constraints. There are temporal shifts from the present action to the perspective of the speaker narrating with hindsight. ‘Child from the underworld’ is a description of the past but told from the present; the invocation of the underworld suggests a realm beyond time. From this position, the future is foreshadowed by the speaker: ‘not yet the girl/who takes the worst route home’. Caught between moments in time, the sense of personal identity and narrative is skewed.


Division Street considers wider questions of identity and social structures through personal experience. One of the most striking poems in the collection is ‘Scab’, which counterpoints the Battle of Orgreave, real and staged (the 2001 re-enactment), with Mort’s experience at Cambridge. Through focussing on small, poignant moments, Mort implies a greater violence than she ever describes: ‘A man foetal/beside the railway tracks./Anointment of blood.’ There are too moments of absurd humour: ‘Pickets chased on horseback through Asda,/running shirtless through the aisles of tins.’ Scenes of Orgreave are juxtaposed with dissonance in the Cambridge sections. Mort’s representations of social events imbue them with a violent, sinister edge. Part IV opens ‘After the challenge of the cutlery,/a vial of prime-cut-coloured port’ and ends ‘Keep your silence/Don’t spill a drop.’ In the last section, the final switch to the second-person singular could have the effect of distancing the speaker from a painful personal experience, as if Mort is lost between two worlds, belonging in neither. Otherwise (or perhaps also) it opens out to speak to those from working-class backgrounds who cross the ‘picket line’ of ‘a gilded College gate’ or ‘a better supermarket’.


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’:

…I wish that each of us
could put such trust in words we’d spend a lifetime
on the vessel of a simple verse, proofing our lines,
only to unmoor them from our names.

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.


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