HELEN MORT was winner of the Manchester Young Poet Prize (2008). Her pamphlet, the shape of every box, was published by tall-lighthouse in 2007, the same year she received an Eric Gregory Award.
Reviews and Features
Helen Mort The Right Place for Love
The Man Alone: New and Selected Poems
Smith Doorstop £9.95
The Clockwork Gift
Third Wish Wasted
They say all poems are about sex, death or poetry. Reading two striking collections from Claire Crowther and Roddy Lumsden alongside Michael Laskey’s The Man Alone: New and Selected Poems, I found myself dwelling on the disparate ways that all three writers explore the issue of mortality. Call me morbid if you will. Or perhaps narcissistic. I sat down to revisit these three books after a week spent almost exclusively in the company of Paul Muldoon’s brilliant To Ireland, I. Muldoon, with his overdeveloped ability to make etymological connections would no doubt say I’ve hastened to this conclusion (or rather imposed it) because of my own deathly surname. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the ways that Crowther, Lumsden and Laskey explore the Orphic predicament: how does the poet deal with the knowledge of our inevitable, impending deaths? The result is three life-affirming, wry, witty collections.
Michael Laskey’s The Man Alone draws together work from over a decade, along with more recent, uncollected poems. What unites the old with the new is precision: a steadfast approach to capturing those moments at which we find ourselves most vulnerable, most human. The title of Laskey’s first full collection, The Tightrope Wedding, is an apt motif for his preoccupations: the delicate line we tread in relationships, the prospect of the fall. From the gentle humour of ‘Identity Parade’ to the closing note of ‘The Last Laugh’, Laskey’s work is always moving in its unselfconscious honesty. Take ‘Offering’, in which the poet interrogates his own heart: ‘Old squeezebox of mine, what do you mean / by your quiet insistence?’.
I first encountered Laskey’s subtle, memorable work in The North and was haunted by ‘The Last Swim’ for weeks, with its delicate reflection on ageing. Beginning wistfully:
September, October ... one thing
you don’t know at the time is when
you’ve had your last swim…
The poem concludes hopefully:
And that’s best, to have gone on swimming
easily to the end: your crawl
full of itself, and the future
no further than your folded towel.
Death is treated as an old familiar in Laskey’s work, even addressed with a certain affection in poems like ‘The Corpse’:
He shares my morning cup of tea, likes it
colder than me. Staring at the empty
blue window, he’s my dad propped up
glimpsed again through the ward’s swing doors.
Paradoxically, there’s something thrilling and alive in Michael Laskey’s discussions of mortality. He is a generous writer: exposing his own vulnerability, discussing the doppelganger of the corpse, the predicament of the man alone who ‘sleeps in a single bed and downloads porn’, the fate of the hit-and-run driver in ‘Driving Home’. This last poem unravels with terrifying clarity, the driver intending to summon help, travelling further and further away from the scene of the accident in the night:
What’s done is done. You know a man
Who’ll fix the car. Softly you close
The up-and-over garage door.
Like ‘Home Movies’ with its brilliant account of watching the tape of a wedding in reverse, this sophisticated poem is characteristic of the work of a writer whose poems can seem deceptively simple at times, yet always merit a fifth and sixth and seventh reading. Laskey is never judgemental. Fitting then, that a short piece called ‘The Right Place’ is the penultimate note of the collection. This tender poem relates setting a duvet down lightly over the shoulders of someone who is sleeping:
And drifting off yourself
on a sofa somewhere you’ve sensed
the same weight settle and known
how the warmth around you will soon
deepen your sleep. And that’s something,
whatever else you’ve done or not done.
What one gets from Michael Laskey’s impressive poems, with their wit and human detail, is the urge to agree with Robert Frost, whom Laskey quotes in an epigraph: ‘Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better’.
Claire Crowther’s The Clockwork Gift considers mortality and absence in similarly subtle and varied ways. Many of the poems in this, Crowther’s second collection, examine the role of older women in contemporary society with a tone that is half-defiant, half-fearful. Grandmothers are important figures in the book, from the grandmother of God, ‘haggling with memories’, to the grandmothers who parent AIDS orphans, to whom ‘Mine, then’ is dedicated. Though these vivid character portraits intrigued me, particularly the fascinating sequence about St Anne, grandmother of Jesus, it was the ghostly melancholy of ‘Ubi Sunt’ that really struck me, with its narrator wandering in search of ‘transparent walkways / office to office, tear shaped desks’ where she once worked.
Transparency in The Clockwork Gift is often used to evoke the past, at once close and unreachable. For all the confidence of Crowther’s language – the poems are characterized by daring line breaks, striking, off-kilter images (‘stark as an ambulance, the sun’) – there’s a fascination with fragility running through the book. This is crystallized in ‘Experience’, a vivid account of a woman’s release from Death Row, and her walk through ‘a gorge of chaotic limestone’ where she stands to watch rock climbers:
rejecting the frailty of this or that stone,
clicking in the knot
that would hold them from falling back to the passage.
The tension between confidence and fear in this poem, encapsulated by the movement of the climbers, is a theme apparent throughout the whole collection. As Crowther neatly puts it:
They climbed for the sake of the stone. One stopped
In a patch of sun, refusing to carry on
Trusting the handshake of rock and rope
Though below each man another looked up
Holding a thin string.
These poems often explore frailty. In ‘Fatality’, Crowther reveals how fragile our reliance on machinery is; in ‘Oma’ she describes a car which ‘blooms with black rust’, how ‘everything soft in it has rotted’. They do this with such inventiveness and confidence that the reader cannot help but be uplifted, carried away with the energy of the work. Claire Crowther is a poet in love with sound, and movement – in short, with the cadence of life itself.
Indeed, these sidelong glances at mortality are singularly energizing in all three collections. Roddy Lumsden’s response to the Orphic predicament is to yearn for the most the world can offer; Third Wish Wasted is a book of longing, a kind of greed for life. In ‘Beyond Pale’, he wants the blondest girls ‘none more blonde’. In ‘Maximizing the Audience’ it is not enough to imagine the crowd naked;
instead, the poet pictures them as a multitude of ‘sand eels in the shallows’, or ‘a horde of ghosts waltzing in a barn’. In ‘Taste’, he evokes the sharpness of the very idea of a lemon: ‘just a sideways glimpse / and your tongue runs tart’. It is as he acknowledges in the brilliantly-titled ‘Between the Penny Dropping and the Penny Landing’:
The things we want most we will never have.
We learned this when we overheard the song
of a slant moon which wraps the land below,
which courts significance in every corner,
spreads the blueshift, ekes the silver rose...
Lumsden’s language is musical, enchanting, almost incantatory at times. These poems are as rich as what they crave, even as that craving can never quite be satisfied. The poems in Third Wish Wasted (a tantalizing, wistful title in itself) put me in mind of the predicament faced by Richard Wilbur’s narrator in his masterpiece ‘The Mind Reader’ – the affliction of seeing acutely:
I hanker for that place beyond the sparrow
Where the wrench beds in mud, the sun hat hangs
In densest branches, and the book is drowned.
I sensed a similar sentiment in this extract from ‘A Story of Spice’:
Since we are human and we seek
what is beyond the ear, behind
the yard’s back wall, all that lies
outside our giddy orbis…
Third Wish Wasted is a collection that strives towards what is ‘beyond the ear’, even though it accepts that life and language often fall short. As Lumsden reflects stoically in ‘The Microwave’, content is a kind of compromise. The narrator has ‘seen through forty’ with:
life boiled down
to a glue of unexcitement or a stock of content
depending on which way my mood is pointing.
This sentiment, familiar from Donald Justice’s ‘Men at Forty’, is a kind of half-amused sigh. Nonetheless, Lumsden is, to cite the title of the third poem in the collection, ‘Against Complaint’. Things could always be worse for us, even though they could always be better:
We who would polish off a feast have lain
late in our beds, our bellies groaning, throats on fire.
We who’d drain a vat of wine have drunk
our own blood for its sting.
Each of us in tatters flaunts
one treasured garment flapping in the wind.
This poem is one of many timely warnings in the collection.Lumsden also advises us ‘Against Conceit’ and ‘Against Confession’, and weaves in a sequence evoking ‘The Young’,‘The Beautiful’ and ‘The Damned’. Beauty, like acute vision,is a double-edged sword, prompting both longing and celebration, from the description of Kate Moss’s ‘milky tea dress’ in ‘To The End of the Day’ to the delicate wit of ‘Great Beauties and Where To Place Them On The Stage’.
Third Wish Wasted is a kind of lively recipe book, with its inventive forms. (Visit www.vitamin-p.co.uk to find out what a ‘hebdomad’ or a ‘charismatic’ is.) Recipes with a difference: how to drink in the world, how to experience yourself. In ‘Self Portrait as Hard Work’, the narrator reflects on the constant irritation and delight of our own bodies: ‘tricky work sometimes not to smell yourself, / ferment being constant’. These poems are knowing and self-aware. Roddy Lumsden manages to write in a way that feels both precise and alien. Acutely musical, this poetry is rich with haunting images, from the line in ‘The Hook’ describing ‘the sleeve of night tightening around him’ to the detail in ‘Dying Horse, Tyssen Road’ of the ‘bull’s blood, penny toffee / taste of London Pride’. The last poem in the collection, ‘Quietus’ reiterates the book’s theme of longing:
my tongue will sicken for wine and wit
so long since tasted
The songs and slurs of cats
will jinx the air as I walk the limit
my third wish wasted
However, it was the first poem ‘The Young’ that I found myself going back to with a smile; you can’t help but love a collection that opens with the salutation ‘You bastards!’.