Abegail Morley’s first collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, a winner of the Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Competition and shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection prize, was always going to be a hard act to follow.
With the very smart Pindrop Press edition of Snow Child, Morley has gone for a swift second collection (published just two years after How to Pour Madness into a Teacup) which bears the same hallmark of emotional power. Snow Child again demonstrates that this poet is a force to be reckoned with.
Running to sixty-three pages of poems, the collection could seem in need of some pruning, but part of the message of Morley’s work appears to me to be its protracted nature. She has a way of approaching her subjects from several different angles, and the resulting layers of emotion, the build-up of impressions, the accretions of weight, are central to the effect of the collection as a whole.
The poems describe and inhabit a state of super-sensitivity (this term is more aware of a need for covering than the word ‘rawness’, though that word is tempting). It is manifested in ‘Angler’ as the skinned fish with eyes that “solidify and chink on the plate”. It appears in ‘Family Album’ as a yearning: “At the end of the darkness is the thread of my child./ I carry the weight of the dead”. It re-emerges in ‘Northern Line’ as “a disembodiment,/ a straining to replace nothing with something”. This super-sensitivity, questing comfort and seldom finding it, gives the poems their urgency and provides their uniformity of tone and drive.
Many of the poems focus on loss of one kind and another. Often the loss seems predatory, ineluctable, as in ‘Wasps’:
By now you’re 50 miles away at the Dartford Tunnel,
thrumming your way through. Here my skull’s stuffed
with wasps bashing their wings, wedged between
bone and skin. Soon their humming stops.
The loss is generally associated with menace, violence, the potential for more loss, making the compound effect of the collection hefty. In ‘Knoll Beach’, the speaker not only envisions the subject of the poem “slumped like sculpted rock … shoulders slack inside your coat” but shows layer after layer of loss – words shifting their balance, rocks breaking and opening “like scars, thin/ white lines bruising blue then mauve”. Until, finally “your body’s gone/ and all that’s left is the yell of gulls”.
The more loss there is at work in the poems themselves, that is to say the more the poet strips them down, the more effective and affecting they become, and in one of my favourites, ‘Sea’, everything depends on the last word, the possibilities it offers. Here is the whole poem:
I hang seaweed on a doornail.
It is psychic, predicts all manner of things.
My weather glass, my barometer of change,
it keeps away spirits and fire.
I know its air-bladders are mouths
and they talk of nothing but rain
when I pass. I hear their whispers.
I wait for the sun to die.
Pursing my lips and whistling across the sea,
I bring home the wind, the tide turns.
These are determined poems – their bleak beauty will hollow out a place in you, and will rest there.
Buy Snow Child here.
Clare Best‘s poems are widely published in magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine, Magma, Resurgence, Agenda and The Warwick Review. A chapbook, Treasure Ground (HappenStance 2009), resulted from her residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire fens. Breastless – poems from the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts with photographs by Laura Stevens – came out with Pighog in 2011, and Clare’s first full collection, Excisions, was published by Waterloo Press, also in 2011. She teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex. Visit Clare’s website here.