The French For Death
I trampled ants on the quay at Dieppe, dawdling
by the desk where they wouldn't take yes for an answer;
yes, it was our name and spelled just so –
Dad repeated it in Oldham’s finest guttural,
we shook our heads at Moor and Maud and Morden.
Rope swung from the captain’s fist
And lashed the water. I saw him shudder,
Troubled by a vision of our crossing:
Glower of thunder, the lurch and buckle
Of the ferry. I looked him in the eye
and popped my bubblegum. Child
from the underworld in red sandals
and a Disney T-shirt, not yet ashamed
by that curt syllable, not yet the girl
who takes the worst route home, pauses
at the mouth of alleyways, or kisses
strangers on the nameless pier; eyes open
staring out to sea, as if in the distance
there’s the spindle of a shipwreck,
prow angled to a far country.
Carol Ann Duffy has described Helen Mort as “amongst the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of young British Poets” and, going on her Curriculum Vitae, so far you’d have to be brave or just plain stupid to dispute this statement. A quick check on-line and it turns out that she is a five times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award, has received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors (2007), won the Manchester Poetry Prize - Young Writer Prize - in (2008), and in 2010, became the youngest ever poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. She was also the Derbyshire Poet Laureate (2013-2015). Add to this that the poems featured in this post all come from her first full collection of poetry, which was shortlisted for both the T.S Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize (2013) and won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize in 2014, she was also named as one of the Next Generation poets by the Poetry Book Society.
Blurb from back cover
“From the clash between striking miners and police to the delicate conflicts in personal relationships, Helen Mort’s stunning début is marked by distance and division. Named for a street in Sheffield, this is a collection that cherishes specificity: the particularity of names; the reflections the world throws back at us; the precise moment of a realisation. Distinctive and assured, these poems show us how, at the site of conflict, a moment of reconciliation can be born.”
Helen Mort, seems to have been raised within a similar landscape to Liz Berry, a poet I have previously posted on, Helen was born in Sheffield (South Yorkshire,) and raised Derbyshire which is in the Midlands, although east as opposed to Liz’s west. I mention this because Helen Mort has stated that “landscape is an important presence in her work”, in fact she composes many of her poems whilst walking or running on the Cumbrian Fells and whereas I felt that the poetry in Liz Berry’s collection Black Country, used language and specifically dialect to place this region, it’s landscape and people on the map and in some way hark back to a specific time through the language used, I believe Helen Mort seems to me more precise, she picks out places, names and uses them as almost as though they were Cairns, boundary stones, pinpointing to what she is trying to communicate. I also felt that although Division Street harkens back to the past as did Black Country, it’s imagery was more overtly political, what I mean by this is that - in my opinion - Liz Berry may use the dialect as a political tool, as a way of highlighting the decline of industry and the effect that has on her region, Helen seems to use specific points in time, specific events such as the Miners Strike for her imagery, now for a lot of people, myself included, this was time of severe division & conflict, my stepfather was a sparkie (electrician) at one of the pits in Kent & for almost two years I worked at the same pit, before escaping to what for me was a hell-hole. I got out before the government at that time decided to curtail the power of the unions and do this by using the miners unions as an example and destroy them, this ended up ripping whole communities apart & leaving towns and villages with no purpose as they were set up to provide manpower for the mines.
Scab III (part of a 5 sectioned poem)
This is a reconstruction. Nobody
will get hurt. There are miners playing
coppers, ex-coppers shouting
Maggie out. There are battle specialists,
The Vikings and The Sealed Knot.
There will be opportunities to leave,
a handshake at the end. Please note
the language used for authenticity:
example – scab, example – cunt.
This is a re-enactment.
When I blow the whistle, charge
But not before. On my instruction,
Throw your missiles in the air.
On my instruction, tackle him,
Then kick him when he’s down,
Kick him in the bollocks, boot him
like a man in flames.Now harder,
kick him till he doesn't know his name.
This is a reconstruction.
It is important to film everything.
Pickets chased on horseback into Asda,
Running shirtless through the aisles of tins.
A lad who sprints through ginnels,*
Gardens, up somebody’s stairs,
into a room where two more miners
hide beneath the bed, or else
are lost – or left for dead.
*a narrow passage between buildings; an alley
Meaning that this collection of poetry has a lot of resonance for me, in fact I picked it up because of the front cover of this book, which shows an image from the Orgreave Miners strike. Although to make the claim that this is all the collection relates to would be doing it an injustice, even the part of the poem Scab, I placed here is part of a larger poem, that is more an exploration of betrayal in its many forms, the leaving of the home to go to university (Cambridge), with all the feelings raised relating to the family being left behind both physically & socially. In fact this collection explores relationships both on a personal level and a wider scale, on the individual as well as the community,meaning it deals with ideas of both loyalty and betrayal, it also hones in on all those grey areas, those points of conflict that can never be defined by the simple definition of black or white. So what started out for me as a collection raising some ghosts from a long forgotten past, raised more ghosts than I was expecting and in areas I wasn't.
where nobody is clapping
you enter naked, breasts
like two grey stones. You have
to leave your things outside.
They will be counted, weighed,
put back exactly as they weren't.
Helen Mort is a poet born in Sheffield in 1985. She is an alumnus of Christ's College, Cambridge, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge from which she graduated with a Double First in Social and Political Sciences in 2006. In 2014, she completed her Doctorate at Sheffield University with a Ph.D. thesis in English/Neuroscience and her BlogSpot `Poetry on the Brain` was one of the Picador `Best Poetry Blogs` choices.
Poems (Poetry Archive)
Interview (Granta Magazine)
Poetry & the Brain (Interview Poetry School)
Somewhere, there is a spider called Harrison Ford,
another genus known as Orson Welles. The ocean’s full
of seahorses who take their names from racing champs.
Above our heads, a solitary Greta Garbo wasp takes flight.
Each day, someone adopts a killer whale or buys
a patch of moon only to call it Bob and last night,
watching meteors sail drunk across the Grasmere sky,
you told me there are minor planets christened
Elvis, Nietzsche, Mr Spock. So forgive me if I looked up
past your face, to see those nearly-silver drops
make rivers in the dark, and, for a moment,
almost thought there might be stars named after us.