Abegail Morley’s second poetry collection comes with a classy pedigree. Her debut, ‘How to pour madness into a teacup’ was short-listed for the 2010 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Although it’s only 2 years since her first collection, where other poets might have rushed together new material into a less coherent book, Morley’s work is well-developed, keenly edited, and arranged to give the maximum power to each poem, as well as the narrative arc of the collection as a whole.
The subject-matter is familiar – charting the development of a relationship, loss and betrayal, as well as emotional break-down. But the power, honesty, and at times stunning rawness of Morley’s voice set these pieces apart. From ‘Unstable’ beginnings to ‘The last moment’, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a writer in total control of her (extremely emotionally volatile) material.
There is humour here too, in unexpected places. Morley knows how to give the reader a breather after a punch to the heart.
Morley is a spare writer who focuses down to details with a clear eye. Light is a key motif and a key tool for dramatically spotlighting occurrences: ’your halo is only the end of light/ passing into tomorrow’ (‘Visitor’); ‘only a squat of light/ hunches at the far side’ (‘Angler’). She also has an astute ear for everyday sounds: leaves ‘witter in the wind’ (‘Mud’).
The title poem in particular deserves a mention for its candid portrayal of loss that the narrator doesn’t feel permitted to feel as loss. It begins:
‘I didn’t think you
would exist this much’
and has at its core a shocking image of the physicality of grief:
There are teeth in it.’
Key themes in the collection coalesce in this piece: the boundaries of the mind, body, and other; self-actualisation and disintegration; and the difficulty of holding on to any kind of anchorage in life.
Relationships provide support, growth, and light: ‘Be good to each other then surrender’ as well as dissatisfaction: ‘I think he’ll put his thumb/ in the dimple on my chin, but he doesn’t’ (‘I learn this from him’). The humour is dark and very down to earth: ‘Now he’s here, he’s pissing me off’ (‘Moved in’).
From the outset, she exposes the power struggle in the couple’s developing relationship: ‘I will close my mouth on yours./ That’ll be the end of it.’ (‘Your best side’); ‘My bones…arranged how he likes them’ (‘Flash photography’); ‘my breath was his not mine’ (‘Flash photography’).
Given the narrator’s delicate state of mind from recent episodes of mental illness, self-protection and self-harm start to intermingle:
‘[She] smothers her face in a towel
to hold her name safely in her mouth’
The descriptions of experiencing manic and depressive states have an impressive lucidity:
‘the air remembers you. It shifts its weight,
waits by the door to be freed.’
In ‘Manic episode’, Morley’s description of the loss of the narrator’s sense of self touchingly echoes Norman MacCaig at his most elegiac: ‘Everywhere I go I’ve died.’
When the relationship ends in betrayal (‘He steals the sense from her sentence’, ‘Breaking up’), the speaker is movingly child-like in her denial it is over:
‘I want your footprint. Just one.
You can’t go anywhere with one.’
Morley shows how we fail to truly connect to the world, and at times our own selves, as well as each other.
It’s interesting to compare this collection to Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Rapture’ – another book charting a developing and eventually failing relationship. While Duffy’s work is obviously expertly handled, even the sadder poems have an in-built vitality that I find undercuts the pain experienced by the narrator. Morley’s narrative has more baggage attached to it – loss of a child, a fragile hold on the narrator’s sense of self – and in poems like ‘Daffodils’, ‘Visitor’, ‘Room’, and ‘Against the rain’, she effectively demonstrates how loss permeates every object, experience, and future path. As the narrator says in another poem: ‘There is urgency in my loss’ (‘Family album’). And it feels the more real to me for that.
The collection ends on a precarious but hopeful note where the narrator desires stability but recognises life isn’t finished with her yet. She ‘want[s] to come home to stillness’ but instead finds herself ‘skidding along the road, trying to catch myself before/ I disappear from view’ (‘The last moment’). This is a book about how we try to be open to love, pain, and all the world has to offer, and keep our heads above water, even if only just, and if at times slipping under.
It’s also worth saying something about the production values of this book. The striking cover illustration (it made me look up the artist’s website) immediately appealed to me and it suited the material perfectly. And it’s beautifully produced – a book you want to hold in your hand and read. I’d recommend doing just that.
Heidi Williamson’s first collection ‘Electric Shadow’ (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.