Review: Division Street by Helen Mort

Division StreetThe cover of ‘Division Street’, Mort’s first collection, is a picture of miners and police from the 1984 strike. As much as I liked the image it did put me off the collection. Growing up in 1980s Barnsley and indeed still living there today (I escaped for a while, but only got so far before returning) I’ve heard a lot about the strike. I’d like to think the community is moving on, which is perhaps why I was a little irritated that Mort’s London publishers chose to market the poems in this way. This northern legacy is like the thread in her poem; we are unable to escape.

“From now, your movement

is a kite’s: you have the sky

and yet you’re tethered

to a man below, an ancestor…”

For me, ‘Division Street’ is about so much more than the miner’s strike. It’s about Mort’s identity, about who she is and who she will become. There is a real sense of otherness in the poems, a sense of not quite fitting in. The poem ‘Scab’ is more about Mort’s experience of crossing a metaphorical picket line by abandoning her working-class roots to enter the world of academia at Cambridge University than about the miners’ strike.

“On New Year’s Eve, the dead end of 2003,

my Cambridge offer sits untouched

for hours amongst the bills.”

Themes of identity and self are particularly powerful throughout the collection as are the body and landscape. As a runner ‘Fox Miles’ is my favourite. A runner and vixen running across the landscape “in time,” creates a sense of freedom. Running seems to be a way of escaping, more so in ‘Thinspiration Shots’ where the dancer uses it to escape herself,

“the miles you ran from home, near fainting,

trying to give yourself the slip”

Linking to the idea of escaping the self is that of anonymity. There is a preoccupation with names, or namelessness, a desire for anonymity. We see this in the poem, ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’ where ‘anon’ becomes a lullaby and there is an unmooring “from our names.”This is taken further with the idea of the doppleganger. ‘The Girl Next Door’ comes to mind with the chilling final lines, “Last night she said my name. It suited her.”

Rather than the miner’s strike, the poems that are central to the collection include, ‘Thinspiration Shots,’ ‘Miss Heath,’ and ‘Beauty’.

In ‘Thinspiration Shots’ a dancer feels the pressure of striving for an unattainable perfection. One of the most startling images is the jewellery box.

“Once, you dreamt of being small enough

to fit inside your grandma’s jewellery box

a mirror doubling her, the tinny music playing.”

Melancholy and often disturbing, the poems address the issues and anxieties that result from unrealistic expectations. The images may be uncomfortable, but they are certainly powerful and stay with you long after the reading.

I absolutely loved Mort’s collection. She deals with themes that interest me, the language and imagery she uses to do so is startling and beautiful. She even shares my love of running.  And while it’s true that poets aren’t usually famed for their athleticism, Mort is the exception. In writing and athletics it seems I’ve found someone I can admire.

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