These poems confront loss in its many forms with unwavering and astonishing clarity, yet there’s an incandescent thread running through every line that makes each alive with fierce and steely energy.
Here are alert and lyrical poems that hunt out imperfect hiding places, conjure up imaginary sisters and try to contain near-impossible sorrows that spill out of carrier bags and fill up archives. New skins and old disguises are stitched together, the fabric of life tries to hold fast whilst all else unravels and comes apart at the seams. The Skin Diary documents the sometimes fragile and strange windfalls of our days and months; through hard times and thin ice, this journal is bleakly wry, brilliantly focused and brimming with uncanny and discomforting turns of event.
The Skin Diary, a new Nine Arches Press collection from Abegail Morley, is the work of a poet with a blistering imagination and deftness of linguistic touch. These poems explore the thinness of the layers which protect us from the outside world and proves to be a journal of both the ordinary and extraordinary; the corporeal, the physical, the human, the mortal, the tangible and the intangible. It is a collection which lays the poet’s and our own ‘inner workings bare’ (The horologist and the body clock).
Quite rightly, the poet has chosen an absolute stunner for the opening poem – the Cinnamon Single Poem Prize Winner of 2013 – Before you write off your imaginary sister; an emotionally charged work which is worth the book’s cover price alone. Morley is expert in writing the world beyond the frame, what is not in the picture – a world which can include imaginary sisters or invisible friends to console her, where a woman can be stitched into being and a photograph that was never taken becomes a reality. The use of the trope of ‘what didn’t happen’ – as in … sister – ‘Memorise how she didn’t cuddle close for those stories’, ‘she’s not at your wedding, //taking the posy from your nervous hands’ emphasizes the emotion of these lines to an extreme level and for anyone who has lost a sister this is an unbearably empathetic, heartbreaking poem. However, this opener is only one of the collection’s multitude of excellent and innovative poems and sets the bar admirably.
Morley relishes writing on the body – and the strength of her imagery tattoos the mind. These are poems of fists, hands, fingers, palms, shins, organs, necks and knees both in the everyday and imaginative versions: in Summer ‘sun scalds // our scalps, necks’ and in The Archive of Lost Lives we ‘See stained fingers of childhood, no longer // mitten-warm, map worlds on sugar paper’. Rooms and buildings are personified, have bodies ‘as if wind sucked the room’s air till its ribs collapsed’ (‘Losing Elena’) and ‘This is the house he built, not of straw, but guts, blood,//sweat’ (‘Discovery’).
The speaker in these poems is often rendered voiceless: ‘Her voice, huddled in her throat, lets out only the slightest sound’ (‘Nesting in the wardrobe’), ‘Sometimes I phone her up for a chat, but a shriek sticks // to the back of my throat as it if has nowhere else to go’ (‘Losing Elena’). The wind in ‘After the Funeral’ ‘sounds like you breathing. // It’s cluttered, deep-throated, clatters somewhere//in your trachea’. The poems themselves, however, don’t ever suffer such a fate, with their lyrical flow and ease ensuring there are never any ‘rigid hidden vowels, // consonants scratching like lichen in her throat’ (‘Wrong name’).
The Skin Diary’s title poem appears to give the key to its essence:
…This stretch of skin loses itself
to things it’s felt, traps them below
downy hairs, tangles its dream in a web
of veins it’s carried all its life, never let go.
These are often poems of heart – of loss, broken relationships and death amongst other things – and of literal hearts, as in ‘The Cabinet of Broken Hearts’. This features both bodily and metaphysical hearts which are ‘Unwrapped, laid out // they resemble withered peaches, cracked // wintered-stones’, all for the reader’s inspection.
Other themes ripple through the collection producing a sense of cohesion to its contents: often water (some of the poems being drawn from the pamphlet, The Memory of Water, which arose from the author’s residency at Scotney Castle in 2015), childhood, time, birds and eggs amongst others. There is also a varietal tone to the collection which startles and layers, preventing any sense of creeping complacency. In ‘Paddock Wood to Charing Cross’ the protagonist daydreams in a playful way about a constantly spotted male train passenger: ‘I imagine you being Gavin or Brett, bounding down // stairs for a greedy run to the gym’, layering this playfulness against a tender ending where the poet imagines themselves at the passenger’s funeral ‘wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone’ that it would be ‘rude not to go after all we’ve been through’ turning a whimsical poem into one which leaves the reader contemplating the many passing lives we touch on our way through.
Morley herself touches the reader in many ways with this vivid collection: with imagery, emotion, empathy, embodying (in every sense of the word) what it means to be alive, what touches the skin’s surface and what is below the skin; the beginning of the poem ‘Jacket ‘illustrates to a would-be reader what to expect from this striking poet:
I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows.
Chronicles of loss, Abegail Morley’s The Skin Diary – Matthew Stewart
Imagine and imaginary are key words in The Skin Diary (Nine Arches Press, 2016), Abegail Morley’s new collection, and provide a hint to her poetics. However, far from being a flight of fancy, this book is rooted in human experience, as the imaginary turns real and the real imaginary.
Morley writes of an imaginary sister, an imaginary friend, an imaginary photo, all in an attempt to express what cannot be expressed and understand what cannot be understood. Here’s an example of her method from “Childhood”:
“…Her life is stored in a house of ruins
she’s rebuilding brick by brick. If you visit tomorrow
she’ll feed you fairy cakes on white china plates,
pour tea from an imagined pot.”
Imagination is here seen as a technique for dealing with everyday experience, while its inherent risks and dangers are never far away, as in “The Blame”:
“…Tonight I hear you stumble up steps,
four years after. Short shadows on brickwork thicken –
if I was prone to fancy, I would imagine you here.”
As both these pieces indicate, loss and how we wrestle with loss are pivotal themes that resonate throughout this collection, reaching their culmination in its closing poems. The collection reaches its crescendo when Morley homes in on a specific narrative that raises the tension even higher than on previous pages. One of her fundamental poems is “Package”:
“…I didn’t know something so small could change
My day, so opened the gift without ceremony, didn’t expect
his dried-out soused diary to unhug itself from the envelope.
No letter from the coroner, just river-rippled A5 pages.”
Of course, these lines turn on Morley’s use of “unhug”, implicitly leading us towards the speaker’s solitude and afore-mentioned loss.
The Skin Diary moves the reader on every page, but its final poems will cling to the mind forever. They are a chronicle of survival amid excruciating mental and emotional pain. Never depressing but always life-affirming, Abegail Morley’s thematic courage works in tandem with her poetic craft to bring us a memorable collection. Her diary flows into ours and we emerge enriched.
From London Grip
By an odd coincidence, the opening poem in The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley [Nine Arches Press] overlaps with Julia Webb’s prose poem sequence (previous book reviewed) , being about an (imaginary) sister and even mentioning a Tiny Tears doll. But Morley goes on to deal with broader themes of love and loss. ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’ vividly conjures up acid-free boxes … packed with could-bes cracking like vertebrae. This archive contains grim certainties – lungs slaked with brackish water – but the next poem ‘B1077’ is shows us the uncertainties involved when breaking news of tragedy: Your voice on the phone / untangles down the line. I think of an asthma attack,/a hospital, but that isn’t it you say. Morley can make unexpected and unnerving observations about ordinary objects. In ‘If you stitch a woman’ armholes don’t whimper / if drawn too tight; ‘Brighton flat’ mentions being scared by the man on the ground floor whose handprints on the glass fit mine, / perfectly; and ‘Forgetting you’ speaks of silence scribbling on emulsioned walls and winds that threaten the letterbox. These physical descriptions – and the uncomfortable possibilities they suggest – add considerable weight to the emotional content of the poems.
The second half of the book contains two companions to ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’. Items in ‘The Cabinet of Broken Hearts’ have forgotten how to … /dedicate their lives to someone else; and the exhibits in ‘The Museum of Missed Opportunities’ suffocate under // the creak of onlookers, who lean their full weight / on the cabinets. (If the first of these fleetingly recalls Sue Rose’s Heart Archives it merely shows that completely original ideas are very rare!) Real or imagined objects from the past also figure in ‘Foundling’ which is part of a group about loss of/longing for a child. Some child’s shoes are discovered during renovation of an old house and later When the door shuts I know it’s her, / put out Madeira cake, biscuits, sweets / on a plate smaller than my fist, push it / to the table’s edge so she can reach. This tender and complex poem shows once again Morley’s dexterity in dealing with feelings via commonplace tangible objects. She pulls off a similar trick in a poem about a commuter train encounter which began when you mistook a sneeze for a wave [and] waved back. Speculating about the man she has never even spoken to, Morley ends by wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone while she holds a black handkerchief to my face / in case I might sneeze or wave. In this fanciful little poem Morley deals with bereavement just as poignantly as in poems where she approaches the subject more conventionally.
From Litrefs Reviews
Poems from Agenda, Iota, Magma, New Walk, Poetry Review, Stand, etc, mostly with 2, 3 or 4-lined rectangular stanzas, the final stanza often being irregular. “Love Child” is formatted like a Shakespearian sonnet.
The earlier poems deal with childhood, then move through relationships, infertility and coping with loss. Sometimes (as with “Summer” and “Presence”) an early poem will foreshadow a later one. In the final poems, perhaps too much is made from anecdotes.
I liked the first poem, “Before you write off your imaginary sister”, whilst being slightly suspicious of it, partly because “Losing Elena” is also about an invisible friend, and partly because other poems use a similar technical device – a list of negations. Compare this poem with “remember how she didn’t … didn’t … how it didn’t … how water didn’t … how you didn’t … how she didn’t … how she didn’t … Before you know it, she’s not at your wedding …” to
• “Childhood” (almost a companion piece to the above one, with an imaginary/real theme) has “She knows … She knows … it never knew … never knew … It didn’t know … pour tea from an imagined pot”
• “Fish wife” has 3 stanzas each beginning “The woman who’s not my mother”.
• “Presence” has “No one saw”, “No one knew”, “We didn’t know”, “No one heard”, “you didn’t know”.
I also liked “If you stitch a woman”, “The carrier bag”, “The Skin Diary”, “The Cabinet of Broken Hearts”, “Foundling”, and “Miracle” and most of the poems from p.44 about broken affairs and fertility except for the extended metaphors of p.46 (boats) and p.48 (body clock), “Post-” and “Achillea millefolium”.
Throughout are scattered poems of interest. “Paddock Wood to Charing Cross” may not be a major poem, but it’s a worthy addition. It’s a mirror image of the poems that deal with a loved one’s absence, the narrator imagining a lifetime’s friendship with a stranger. In “The Bramble Hotel” the persona leaves the noisy house to hide away in brambles, though they hurt. “ordinary people/ say [fireflies] grow from glow-worms” but the narrator knows better – “there’s no luminescence,/ just criss-crossing, a dot-to-dot drawing/ in red ink, linking one cut to another”. “Love Child” is strange. Initially the persona stores a peeled, cellophaned potato in a fridge. It looks like a skull. She (I presume all the unidentified narrators are female) imagines having a fling with a grocer who she passes, fears he might open her fridge. The poem ends with “I know he’ll fan out his fat hands, hold the hollows/ of the fontanelles, cradle it like a baby’s head.” it being unclear whether she imagines him holding her head or the potato.
Stitches, skulls and frost feature, as does glass in various forms, but I think water is the most frequently mentioned item. Of the first 9 poems for example, 7 mention water in the form of “bath”, “river”, rivulets”, “tears”, “water”, “pools … tides”, and “rain”. From p.41 I checked again, finding that water’s mentioned in nearly every poem, and glass in every 5 or so. Natural cycles (day/night, tides, seasons) can’t stay the progress of time, which is raced against in several of the poems. It’s represented by egg-timers, sand, archives, and ticking bodies as well as the eponymous diary.