In Abegail Morley’s latest work, she takes on the voices of books, paper, documents, photographs and characters to create and curate a dystopian archive.
I am really grateful to Heidi Williamson and Robert Seatter for reading it and agreeing to endorse it. If you’d like a copy let IDP know.
‘I’ve learnt how to undo in perfect order: this exemplary collection is poetry as inventory, played out in rich calibrations of textured and inventive language. Abegail Morley’s poems exist in an exciting tension of stasis and fluidity, as the curator’s paper, objects, artefacts, the body itself seek to unhusk
their inner life and liberate their own
true inky voices.’
‘These are claustrophobic poems about degradation: of matter, the body, relationships, knowledge, and the certainty of words. In the underworld of the archive, Morley aims to ‘complicate the darkness.’ Her poems work as preservation techniques to ‘recall the names of those I’ve hoarded.’ Morley knows how to grip her readers’ attention and destabilise certainties in intriguing ways. In the Curator’s Hands is disturbing, intelligent and absorbing.’
Alex Josephy finds Abegail Morley’s fascinating new collection builds to much more than the sum of its parts – In London Grip
This is an extraordinary collection. Abegail Morley’s graceful, mysterious and at times terrifying poems haunt me and won’t let go. It is in their nature to be hard to describe; to me, they are ‘negative capability’ stretched to its limits.
There is a central theme of ‘curation’; the poems could be read as a curated ‘body’, as in ‘Fonds’, early in the collection. But what is this body? On one level, the lines speak of a museum archive, in that sense a body of evidence, a collation of traces of the past. But although (in ‘The Depository’) ‘at its darkest point, nothing shifts’, this body is very much undead. There is a gathering sense of dispute over the ownership of the body, whose parameters are uncertain. Characters, artefacts and written records are given voice and express their resistance. Even a watermark can yearn for release.
I’m not supposed to be indelible. I just know the end
is a glacier ready to breach…
A battle for definitions and control is being played out. The depository is a place of keeping, but poem after poem raises the question of who or what it is that binds, and who or what is bound. Can we hold and preserve the past, or does the past itself hold captive and control those living in the present?
At times, the curated items are distressingly human and the curator morphs into jailor or even, moving dee-per into ‘the howling dark’, something akin to a dungeon-keeper. Boundaries loosen between books and bodily relics.
He can crease us,
snap open our spines, yet leaves us to blindly
The sinister figure of the curator (and of other characters identified as men) recurs both in third- and first-person. His powers are at times terrifying.
He tells me he’s raked
through my bones, flesh -fingers slow-drawn
on a pistol that could blow our brains out.
At other moments, he is troubled by the ‘inky voices’ of his captives, who hover restlessly in the archives, ‘shadows pausing and unpausing themselves’, wonders ‘why I didn’t let them leave’. Although this is not necessarily the case in every poem, many of the characters ‘he’ curates are identified as women; the place is full of female voices crying out for release, and in this sense Morley offers glimpses into vertiginous depths of fear about power relations between men and women.
Other voices are woven into the mix: in ‘Chronicles’, there is a boy obsessed with his run-away sister (for me this evoked memories of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home’, but with a sinister twist); in ‘Occupied (in B&W)’, a woman seen on a bus (possibly in one of the curated photographs) turns out to have worked for the French Resistance broadcasting station, Radio Londres. ‘Navigating the Annals’ moves into slightly more familiar territory – just an old man ‘with tired hands’, perhaps lost
in time, whose fingers explore the wallpaper,
seek clues in pattern’s arc, pocket them for later,
when he forgets what he set off to find.
I’ve returned many times to one poem in particular: ‘The Bone Creaser.’ Centred on an archaic instrument used to crease and fold paper before stitching it into a book, this poem is as unfathomable and troubling as any in the collection. The language is beautiful in its clarity and economy. It is unclear to me whether the narrator is describing a coersive sexual act using the imagery of book-binding, or vice-versa. Coersive book-bindng would certainly be a possibility in the context of this collection, and in that context I think there is little difference. There is a woman, a (male?) narrator, and there is a book. The creaser, carved from bone, reminds the narrator of ‘the rise of her ribs.’ The narrator speaks seemingly tenderly of falling ‘into the shaft of her body’, and erotically of ‘dimples spread beneath my fingers’, but this entering is the action of a scalpel (‘I…slit open the weave’…) and finally the narrator, the sexual act and the desire to possess become identified with the process of stitching the book, in a final two lines that made me shiver:
I travel in and out, as if time is bound by kettle stitch,
halt mid-thread so I can sew her back to me.
If all this sounds like a descent into a very dark place, it certainly is that. But I found light, joy even, in Morley’s exploration of the language of archiving. If like me, you are a fan of the stationery cupboard, these poems will feed your obsession. Bindings are here, and a metal-edged Hollinger box, foxed pages, the glassine envelope. I wish I’d been the poet to discover the ‘cut flush’, a type of folder with a name made for metaphor. Moving into PItt Rivers territory, (or even Star Wars, perhaps), there’s a holographic embryo in a bell jar. Morley uses these containers as powerful images of confinement, evasion and eventually, escape.
And this is another joy. Throughout the collection, there’s an exquisite sense of unity and purpose; each poem is fresh and unique, and yet they build up to much more than the sum of the parts. And the stories move toward a conclusion. The final poem is in the voice of the curator, pathetic now, reduced to writing down the numbers of cars passing by on the London Orbital,
because numbers are important,
they’re hatched chickens.
And something else has ‘hatched’, too:
When I reach for her, the box is dumbstruck, limbless.
Somewhere in the curve of night she left for good.
I would not want to suggest that there is a ‘happy ending’ exactly; Morley poses questions with no easy answers. In the underworld she has created, anything that seems to settle might spring up to defy definition, like the woman in a footnote:
…a thought that
hasn’t yet raised its hackles.
At every turn, this book unsettles even as it delights. I would describe ‘In the Curator’s Hands’ as essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary poetry.
Everyday world seen through new lens
In the Curator’s Hands by Abegail Morley (Indigo Dreams Publishing, £6. http://www.indigodreams.co.uk) ISBN: 978-1-910834-49-7
You know you’re in strange territory from the opening lines of the first poem, The Depository, in Abegail’s Morley’s new slim volume: “At its darkest point, nothing shifts. In this breathless/place we’re foxed-paper, dip-penned letters”.
Reality is inverted, everyday objects speak back to us, and the dismissably familiar is imbued with intrigue. It’s quite an accomplishment, but Morley sustains the theme and effects throughout twenty-eight poems without once straying into the repetitive, or exhausting the surprises. It says much of her ease with her craft that she takes such a reverse-angled approach while capturing attention. It’s as if we are being invited to look again at the mundane and littered – paper, tickets, dusty toys, ephemera – through new lens, then turn them inside-out to explore their ghost existence. None of which would be possible without the pacing and vibrancy of language to carry our momentum; and here the poet excels. Morley has the best poets’ savvy to know that each line must be revealing without labouring for it; nothing jars; everything flows, her inner ear never falters. I found myself reading these poems with the ease of movement as if they were being whispered to me.
That’s quite a spell to weave. The language, at times, is intoxicating, and she manages to make the simple striking by how it pauses us. Hence, in poems such as ‘Ephemera’, the opening line, “The opposite of how I am lolls at Piccadilly”, is immediate but so unusual in its observation it tempts the reader back. I found myself revisiting it, even as I followed the poem through its vivid collision of street-scene to upfront vision from a bus seat: “I ogle pocket seams, sodden floor-strewn tickets”. There’s a sense here of life being stilled, or drawn to slow-motion so that we observe the disturbing magnitude of its minutiae.
Elsewhere, that knack for the killer line is repeated. In ‘Chronicles’, she shows how a few well-aimed words can distil a storyline, including background characterisation: “When his sister ran away for good this time”. ‘For good’ and ‘this time’– knowing and menace are compressed. Likewise, ‘Hair Wreaths Wrapped in Tissue’ has the undercurrent of threat: “I see his lips twist in a Kirby-grip grin”. I defy any poet to come up with a more shudder-inducing line in 2017 than this, as a commonplace item metaphors sexual sneer. Morley reinterprets the everyday brilliantly. That said, the poem-titles alone attest to one who is alert to the need to offer something newly-minted amid a deluge of writing vying for our notice. I’m caught, at once, by the strange insistence – with maybe a hint of black humour – of ‘Photograph of Woman in Glassinine Envelope’. The poem is deceptively elegant, while exploring further the recurring impressions of estrangement and loss: “The loop of your voice/finds me flinching 50 metres below street level,/weeping on escalators where people rub hands/on rails”.
For all that disturbance, it’s worth emphasising the poignancy that leaks out from these pages. These are poems that move the reader by how urgent but unobvious they are. In that way, they also carry the depth of empathy and insightfulness of poetry that has no limit on its shelf-life. In a book in which almost any poem might be a highlight, I struggle to choose a favourite, but I’ve found myself returning most to ‘Boxed In’ for how it conjures the childlike wonder and fear of the world through the eyes of a boxed toy: “I’m the girl trapped in the box, stomach/an empty honeycomb/gold drained,/dull lustre,/tinny when struck/by a raised fist.” You get a whole lot of hauntingly affecting poetry for 33 pages here – and it leaves you wanting more.
– Neil Young