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THROUGH LOSS AND LONGING: MARIA ISAKOVA BENNETT REVIEWS THE SKIN DIARY

The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley, 72pp, £9.99, Nine Arches Press

An impressive collection, full of echoing motifs: birds fluttering through the pages, references to anatomy abounding, animal and human worlds colliding, and poems moving from air (for instance in ‘Summer’, ‘Nesting in the wardrobe’, ‘Bleeding’, ‘The winter gatherer’, and ‘The Ice Hotel’) to rain (‘Summer’s end in Hackney’, ‘After you’ve died’, ‘Afterwards in ink’, and ‘Night planting’). The Skin Diary contains 57 poems which create a sense of emptiness and loss, starting as it continues, from what is spoken at the end of the opening poem, ‘ I miss you, I miss you .’ (‘Before you write off your imaginary sister’). Loss, and the threat of it, permeates the collection. This is not focused on one person, rather, it shifts, coming to settle variously on, for instance: a missing imaginary sister; an imaginary friend (‘Losing Elena’); the ‘he’, and ‘you’ as an oncology patient (‘The Oncology Community’); ‘the lake of lost children’ (‘Counter turn’) and the stranger in the train whose funeral the narrator considers, ‘I can’t help wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone,…’ (‘Paddock Wood to Charing Cross’).

Abegail

The book is punctuated with references to warnings of heartbreak (‘Post-’, ‘The carrier bag’), disappearance, drowning (‘Mayday’), and death (‘Pause’). These forebodings build tension and add poignancy to the later poems in which disappearance or death are faced: ‘But this morning I lie awake // You’re still unvarnished, unravelled in my temporal lobe –’, (‘Forgetting you’); ‘We didn’t know how drunk you were / At St. Peter’s Bridge, standing on the edge’ (‘Presence’); and in the extremely moving ‘text’, ‘But you weren’t back. Later. Or ever.’ Pieces about fertility and fertilization, and the motif of eggs, highlight another poignant loss. These are made beautifully memorable through references to the sea, ‘…You’re the thinness / that laps shorelines at night when oceans / hanker after dunes, barge up beaches…’ (‘Miracle’). Throughout, a sense of liminality and space is created, whether on a staircase such as in ‘Brighton flat’, ‘Last night’, or ‘Living with Bats’ (‘I’m listening for your tread / on the stairs’), or the raw exposure of the insides of the body in, for example, ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’, ‘After the funeral’, ‘The horologist and the body clock’, or imagination, akin to magical realism:

.
I touch his sleeve and it comes to life, like it’s full of swallows,
swifts, nightjars nesting in its folds –
[‘Jacket’]

.
and,

.
I said everything I could before you stopped me, sifted skin through hourglass after hourglass [‘Time Keeper’]

The Skin Diary provides much insight, a journal of survival despite loss, which closes with a charm: ‘I plant for you / agapanthus, dahlia, harebell’ (‘Night Planting’). Raw reality is contained between the imaginative, magical first and last poems. Throughout, thoughts are raised about the power of the imagination, and of spell-like charms helping to elevate us above loss and longing.

First published in Orbis 177

Maria Isakova Bennett lives in Liverpool and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poetry and reviews have been published online and in print in Ireland, UK, and US. She has won and has been placed in many open poetry competitions, collaborates with artists and writers, and runs workshops in galleries.

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