Division Street – Review by Kayo Chingonyi

In a recent anthology of essays on poetic craft, Helen Mort made the following assertion, in a short essay on the gestation of her poem ‘Beauty’: ‘I don’t write my best poems when I’m sitting at my desk, but when I’m moving’.[1] Mort is referring here to a mode of writing known as ‘composing on the lips’ (the term is, I believe, from Mandelstam) in which the writer works in their head while doing other things before writing anything down. The fact that Mort believes her best poems come from this process suggests that the idea of a poem being an iterative as well as a written thing is an important part of her poetics. This is perhaps what lends Mort’s work its distinctive sense of propulsion.

Mort jacket

Take the poem ‘Beauty’ for instance with its attention to conversational speech, even as it follows a strict formal structure:

When beauty stumbled down my road, tapped at my door
I saw her from the lounge and hid – her eyes were raw
from smoke, her cheeks like risen dough from where she’d wept
and worse, I didn’t like the company she kept      (‘Beauty’)

The pauses here are subtly placed to capture the stops and starts of speaking and in so doing also serve to offset the strict rhyming pattern, bringing an improvisational quality to each line which in turn holds the reader’s interest so that they stay with the poem. This conversational mode is employed to great effect elsewhere in ‘Stainless Stephen’ which begins its celebration of a long-dead music hall performer with the line: ‘He haunts the chippies mostly’ which draws the reader in by setting up a sense of intimacy between speaker and reader/listener.

Mort’s talent for dialogue lends the poems in the book a dramatic tension which is at its height in a poem like ‘Scab’ which sustains a filmic quality in its use of cuts between a past demonstration during the miners’ strike, a recent re-enactment of that demonstration as part of an art project by Jeremy Deller, and vignettes from an elite educational institution. This shifting structure means that the poem is always moving, perhaps mirroring the way it was written. The assured sense of voice in this book, both in the literary and physical sense, makes it easy to forget that this is Mort’s first full length collection. This augurs exceptionally well for her future offerings.    

[1] Helen Mort, ‘Walking The Line’, in In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets On Their Poetry, eds. Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012), p. 98


Kayo Chingonyi is a poet, editor, events producer and educator. His pamphlet, Some Bright Elegance, was published by Salt in 2012. Follow @KayoChingonyi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *