In Tony Harrison’s v., the Vs sprayed on the Harrison family grave in Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds, ‘are all the versuses of life / from LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White / and (as I’ve known to my cost) man v. wife, / Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right, // class v. class as bitter as before, / the unending violence of US and THEM, / personified in 1984 / by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM.’ As the success of the Mail Online testifies, there’s nothing quite as easy, or as comforting, as caricatured, externalized objects of hate. Thankfully, Harrison’s not prepared to let himself off so easily, exposing the real divisions in his life as those slashed in the fabric of his soul and, despite our cack-handed darning, the ugly blemishes in the hearts of ourselves will not be worried away.
Helen Mort’s Division Street is, among other things, a glorious meditation on division, both from within and without. In Scab, Mort’s topsy turvy Sheffield conveys the turbulence and social upheaval of the 1980s with disarming levity and iconoclastic humour: ‘A stone is lobbed in ’84, / hangs like a star over Orgreave. / Welcome to Sheffield. Border-land, / our town of miracles – the wine / turning to water in the pubs, / the tax man ransacking the Church, / plenty of room at every inn. / And watch: a car flares / into a burning bush.’ So far, so reassuringly Them & [uz] but, as the sequence unfolds, Mort cuts to Cambridge, where the local lass come good sits at formal hall as the port’s passed: ‘The trick’s in moving artlessly, / not faltering as if it burns / your hands. Now sit down. / Keep your silence. / Don’t spill a drop.’ To move ‘artlessly’ is utterly negative – to move with the absence of something, however you’re supposed to do that. That this is also described as a ‘trick’ implies the hours of solitary practise required in order to deceive with this ostensibly off the cuff sleight of hand. The terse voice of authority colonizes the stanza, regularizing the speaker’s enjambment to a disciplined end stopped last word, as she is becomes complicit in a Bullingdon Club communion of class betrayal.
The Girl Next Door leads the reader into uncanny territory: ‘First, she came to borrow sugar. Sunday afternoons / she’d cadge a pint of milk, sometimes a cigarette, / then greet the sunset in her overgrown back garden, / blowing smoke rings into mine. Soon she took // the unripe apples from my tree’ In our fragmented communities there’s nothing unwelcome about these small moments of connection with a neighbour, and our complicity in the euphemism ‘borrow.’ Yet the stanza break leaves the word ‘took’ hanging from the bough, casting its shadow over the subsequent thefts, until ‘I’d see her silhouette / in her kitchen, head tipped back, the way I stand.’ Perhaps the girl next door has committed an identity theft, of sorts yet it’s now the speaker skulking like a voyeur, and who’s the girl next door? Surely that’s just a matter of perspective? This is a superb, playful meditation on the elasticity of identity.
In Thinspiration Shots, conflict’s visceral but internal. ‘Scroll down. A brunette in a mermaid pose, / too slight to break the surface of the lake. / You would have drunk a lake-full if you could, / those days they put you on the scales.’ ‘Scroll down’ is another of those terse commands, but this time it comes from within and not from without, as the anorexic woman falls down the rabbit hole of online addiction, into a world in which women are not as they seem, and body image shape shifts like Proteus. The scales metamorphose from a well-intentioned medical intervention to a butcher’s shop, and that slight frame becomes a Smithfield bargain: weighed, measured and acutely conscious of its heavy, disgusting physicality.
Division Street has a hell of a lot going for it: it’s a playful collection that sees Mort riffing on her name like Donne or Shakespeare (with a name this good, it’d be rude not to) and, when her eye and ear turn to the natural world in sequences like North of Everywhere, she evokes the spirit of the place. In Shetland, her alliterative verse is ancient and the stretched vowels serve the truth of the line: ‘Wind-whittled, turned on the sea’s lathe too long, / built by a craftsman who can’t leave it alone.’ Division Street is a fine debut and, if you haven’t read it yet, then bag a copy now.