Still only in her twenties, Helen Mort follows up her Tall-Lighthouse and Wordsworth Trust pamphlets with her first full-length volume. The opening poem, ‘The French for Death’ riffs on her surname and establishes a mordant sense of humour that infuses the collection. The humour is welcome; without it, Division Street might have been a hard slog.
The title poem references a street in Sheffield: “You brought me here to break it off / one muggy Tuesday. A brewing storm / the pigeons sleek with rain.” Location and personal experience stud Mort’s work like pins in a map. In ‘Take Notes’, there’s a sense of curtain-twitching parochialism: “… the checkout girl in the superstore / who didn’t look at me, only what I bought. / You pointed out each lit window in town. / Take notes, you said, one day you’ll write this down.” ‘Take Notes’, along with ‘The Girl Next Door’, ‘Thinspiration Shots’ and ‘Beauty’, forms a loose quartet on the nature of female identity and the struggle against objectification and expectation.
Always, though, there’s the sense of place: ‘Coffin Path’, ‘Brocken Spectre’ and the wonderfully surreal but understated ‘Items Carried Up Ben Nevis’ are anchored by the rugged physicality of the landscapes they describe, while ‘Scab’, the collection’s eight-page centrepiece, shows that the scars of the miners’ strike are still keenly felt and a part of Mort’s heritage: “A stone is lobbed in ’84”, the sequence begins: “hangs like a star over Orgreave. / Welcome to Sheffield. Borderland, / our town of miracles – the wine / turning to water in the pubs, / the taxman ransacking the Church, / plenty of room at every inn.” The sequence moves from alternative parable to Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave to the blunt interruption of the poet’s university days by the past: “One day, it crashes through / your windowpane; the stone, / the word, the fallen star. You’re left / to guess which picket line / you crossed …”
Division Street is rich in hard earned and unblinkered experience. It’s a rite of passage with not a single duff poem, announcing Mort as a major new voice.