- United Kingdom -
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. A stand out poet of her generation, there was a buzz around Helen Mort even before she published her first collection Division Street. She had already published two enthusiastically received pamphlets, and won the Foyle Young Poet award numerous times. Division Street was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Poetry Award and won the respected Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and in 2010 she became the youngest poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust. Now she has a second Poetry Book Society Recommended collection, No Map Could Show Them.
Helen Mort’s poems are often breathtakingly wonderful. Assured, full of mystery, subtly witty, completely unique in the images they paint, reveal and capture for the reader. An Easy Day for a Lady is one such extraordinarily exuberant poem turning a derogatory comment aimed at female mountain climbers into a marvellous celebration of courage and power:
we are magicians of the Alps -
we make the routes we follow
Another brilliant example of Mort’s ability to upturn perspective and make things she writes about seem completely new and fresh, with complete integrity and conviction is in the poem Items Carried Up Ben Nevis, which begins,
The piano, that was easiest, despite the keys
rattling like dice beneath the lid, so next
I strapped a toffee-coloured horse across my back
The strangeness is balanced by the attention to detail and the poem builds verse by verse into an ending that subverts our expectations and seems to leave us in very different territory.
Hauntings, in the form of ghosts, near misses and glimpsed epiphanies form a strong thread in Helen Mort’s work and she responds to a question about this in a Granta interview with Rachael Allen, “I think poetry itself is a kind of haunting for me. That’s how poems start – I’m visited by an idea that won’t go away and I often carry it around for months.” There is the image of her mother standing at the window in the poem Deer,
Those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur,
Their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.
Or the pub in Stainless Steven ‘where brambles twine around the pumps’ and men stride in and
Tug their collars,
loosening the noose of heat.
Some of the poems evoke a vision of the north of England as a place haunted, by its past and history; a place which is in a sense disappearing as it changes beyond recognition, ‘The mills are plush apartments now’. In Fur the snow
wants my childhood for itself.
It wants to claim The Blacksmith’s Arms,
digest the Calow Fish Bar whole...
Class is a strong theme, explored in poems in both collections such as in the brilliant and moving poem Tom Hulatt’s Mile about an iconic race where he was the only runner who was not a university student. This theme is perhaps most strong and personal in Scab, a poem about the clash between picketing miners and the police in 1984. Helen Mort says, “I could only write ‘Scab’ when I’d figured out what my connection with it (the aftermath of the strikes) really was, why it bothered me so much. And that centred around experiences at Cambridge University, the idea of having crossed an invisible picket line. I had to come at it a bit slant.’
A stone is lobbed in ’84,
hangs like a star over Orgreave.
Welcome to Sheffield. Border-land,
our town of miracles..
Not only class, but gender and the many voices that are traditionally and persistently forgotten, ignored, misunderstood or unheard. Often Helen Mort’s poems tackle difficult themes with assured wit and a satirical flare, such as in the poem Difficult, ‘In London, it’s said you’re never more than 6 feet/ from a difficult woman.’ Thinspiration Shots is overtly about an eating disorder, but also less easily about the urge to disappear,
Once you dreamt of being small enough
to fit inside your grandma’s jewellery box:
the dancer spinning on her gold left leg,
Rachel in Attercliffee takes the voice of a sex-worker in a city sauna. The wonderful sequence of poems Big Lil celebrate Lilian Bilocca who became a campaigner after the 1968 Hull trawler disaster. The poems work on many levels, imagining Bilocca’s inner life as in Lil’s dream and satirising her portrayal in the media.
Helen Mort’s writing has a strong musicality, with beautiful use of rhyme and word sounds to create a lovely lilt across many of the poems. It is no surprise therefore to find out that she is inspired by John Burnside and Andrew Greig. Many critics also comment on the precision of her writing, such as a tattoo captured in ‘the knit-knit whine/of needle dotting bone’. Her poems about landscapes reflect her passions as a walker, runner and climber and draw the reader deeply into their wildness and strangeness. Her poems are full of phrases and images that, as one critic puts it, seem ‘effortlessly beautiful’ as in Coffin Path:
Today, the dark’s grown courteous:
shadows seem to step aside
to let me pass...
/ Big Lil
/ How to Dress
/ Kinder Scout
/ Alport Castles
/ The French for Death
/ Twenty Two Words for Snow
/ Rag & Bone
/ The Dogs
/ Items Carried Up Ben Nevis
/ Fox Miles
/ In Defence of Cliché
/ Looking Glass