Abegail Morley’s first poetry collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup is brutally depressive. Repeatedly she gives us images of a love which is being ignored, left stranded, kept at arms’ length: of a woman whose life is being ripped up by a man who cares only about himself, about a woman who craves the touch that is denied her, of a series of revenges on a love gone wrong which hurt rather than heal. It is a sequence not unlike some of the darker of Selima Hill’s sequences, but stripped, almost, of the surreal asides with which Hill sometimes comforts the reader. As a result, the collection is coolly obsessive, raw, hard to avert one’s eyes from, exquisitely painful.
What holds it together is the brevity of the poems and the sharp, almost fearful strop of the images. Time after time, a line is packed with loathing – with terror – with the acute understanding of what it is like to be treated like an object. What is breathtaking is the cool way in which Morley comes at the subject again and again, the little flashes of detail that render the speaker and reader helpless. It is rare to find a collection which is so hypnotically filled with trapped desire. It is like being inside the head of Munch’s The Scream. It is like nothing else around: the poetry of rejection. That’s what marks it out and makes it so special. Even a mundane setting inspires the writing. In ‘Slice’, the man and the woman are in a street. He has a burger:
Between biting his burger
and talking to her,
he stops at the kerb
of Gerald Street.
He smiles at her,
squeezes tomato pips between his teeth,
slides them through gaps,
and licks them away without a thought.
Morley leaves us to fill in the missing words, the absence of touch, the self-seeking indolence of the man, who is so self-absorbed that you half-hope a runaway taxi will emerge from another poem and run the bastard over. Not long after this poem there is a succession of poems in which the speaker tries to drown herself, but even here there is no solace:
her lips cling like limpets to her drowning mouth.
Her face swells, it purls and falls. (‘Submerging’)
And yet still the couple are together:
He reads her by her scars.
Does he remember writing them? (‘One Last Time’)
When (it seems) he leaves her, she is driven into a slow frenzy of memory (never remorse), while trying to cleanse herself (there are several startling images of attempts at purification): ‘Tonight she will have to wash the madness out of her jeans.’ In one of the most startling poems, at the end of the tether of poems, she makes a statue of the man, and then dismembers it. Every time you think the sequence is resolving itself, either into the speaker’s madness, or even escape, the man returns. Sometimes the couple seems like an old married couple, sometimes like a pair of teenagers – the slippages of time and place keep the reader alert. Writing about depression/ anger/ longing is hard. This is a brilliantly uncomfortable sequence, and you won’t get it out of your head. No matter how hard you wash.