First published in the wonderful poetry journal The High Window
The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley. Nine Arches Press. 2016. £9.99. 978-1911027041.
The Skin Diary, a new Nine Arches Press collection from Abegail Morley, is the work of a poet with a blistering imagination and deftness of linguistic touch. These poems explore the thinness of the layers which protect us from the outside world and proves to be a journal of both the ordinary and extraordinary; the corporeal, the physical, the human, the mortal, the tangible and the intangible. It is a collection which lays the poet’s and our own ‘inner workings bare’ (The horologist and the body clock).
Quite rightly, the poet has chosen an absolute stunner for the opening poem – the Cinnamon Single Poem Prize Winner of 2013 – Before you write off your imaginary sister; an emotionally charged work which is worth the book’s cover price alone. Morley is expert in writing the world beyond the frame, what is not in the picture – a world which can include imaginary sisters or invisible friends to console her, where a woman can be stitched into being and a photograph that was never taken becomes a reality. The use of the trope of ‘what didn’t happen’ – as in … sister – ‘Memorise how she didn’t cuddle close for those stories’, ‘she’s not at your wedding, //taking the posy from your nervous hands’ emphasizes the emotion of these lines to an extreme level and for anyone who has lost a sister this is an unbearably empathetic, heartbreaking poem. However, this opener is only one of the collection’s multitude of excellent and innovative poems and sets the bar admirably.
Morley relishes writing on the body – and the strength of her imagery tattoos the mind. These are poems of fists, hands, fingers, palms, shins, organs, necks and knees both in the everyday and imaginative versions: in Summer ‘sun scalds // our scalps, necks’ and in The Archive of Lost Lives we ‘See stained fingers of childhood, no longer // mitten-warm, map worlds on sugar paper’. Rooms and buildings are personified, have bodies ‘as if wind sucked the room’s air till its ribs collapsed’ (‘Losing Elena’) and ‘This is the house he built, not of straw, but guts, blood,//sweat’ (‘Discovery’).
The speaker in these poems is often rendered voiceless: ‘Her voice, huddled in her throat, lets out only the slightest sound’ (‘Nesting in the wardrobe’), ‘Sometimes I phone her up for a chat, but a shriek sticks // to the back of my throat as it if has nowhere else to go’ (‘Losing Elena’). The wind in ‘After the Funeral’ ‘sounds like you breathing. // It’s cluttered, deep-throated, clatters somewhere//in your trachea’. The poems themselves, however, don’t ever suffer such a fate, with their lyrical flow and ease ensuring there are never any ‘rigid hidden vowels, // consonants scratching like lichen in her throat’ (‘Wrong name’).
The Skin Diary’s title poem appears to give the key to its essence:
…This stretch of skin loses itself
to things it’s felt, traps them below
downy hairs, tangles its dream in a web
of veins it’s carried all its life, never let go.
These are often poems of heart – of loss, broken relationships and death amongst other things – and of literal hearts, as in ‘The Cabinet of Broken Hearts’. This features both bodily and metaphysical hearts which are ‘Unwrapped, laid out // they resemble withered peaches, cracked // wintered-stones’, all for the reader’s inspection.
Other themes ripple through the collection producing a sense of cohesion to its contents: often water (some of the poems being drawn from the pamphlet, The Memory of Water, which arose from the author’s residency at Scotney Castle in 2015), childhood, time, birds and eggs amongst others. There is also a varietal tone to the collection which startles and layers, preventing any sense of creeping complacency. In ‘Paddock Wood to Charing Cross’ the protagonist daydreams in a playful way about a constantly spotted male train passenger: ‘I imagine you being Gavin or Brett, bounding down // stairs for a greedy run to the gym’, layering this playfulness against a tender ending where the poet imagines themselves at the passenger’s funeral ‘wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone’ that it would be ‘rude not to go after all we’ve been through’ turning a whimsical poem into one which leaves the reader contemplating the many passing lives we touch on our way through.
Morley herself touches the reader in many ways with this vivid collection: with imagery, emotion, empathy, embodying (in every sense of the word) what it means to be alive, what touches the skin’s surface and what is below the skin; the beginning of the poem ‘Jacket ‘illustrates to a would-be reader what to expect from this striking poet:
I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows.
In 2015 Jill Munro had two poems long-listed for the National Poetry competition, was short-listed for Canterbury Poet of the Year, highly commended in the Sussex Poets’ Competition & the US Princemere Poetry Prize and had her first collection, Man from La Paz published by Green Bottle Press, London. So far in 2016, she has been short-listed for the Charles Causley International Poetry Prize and won the Fair Acre Press Pamphlet Competition.