Saturday 11 October 2014

A Joiner Shows Us the Clues: Review by Rebecca Bird of "Melanchrini" by Maria Taylor

Maria Taylor’s debut collection Melanchrini is the music of archaeology. She digs deep trenches in the right places, uncovers the right amount of dust and earth, knows the histories and peculiarities of her subjects, yet finds inevitably that these past peoples – embedded as memories in her poetry – have been living deficient: missing something from their lives. Maria Taylor has an assured and informed grasp on this nature of absence, of departure, of death and importantly, of not-quite-yet and such excavation, we get true lyrical glimpses at the underside of normal and how the impact of ‘not-having’ resonates throughout ordinary lives.

The entire first section illuminates ‘not-having’ with family and personal memory. ‘Outside’ offers a stunning lyric about pregnancy and the expectation of birth: ‘I stroke your head through my flesh/the moon curve of you.’

‘At Her Grandmother’s Table’, almost a cold opening, references morning coffee over the years and the participants now long gone: ‘your grandfather hushed and stormless’ is a typical Taylor usage, similar to ‘unhistoried’ ('99/2000') and ‘unfathered’ ('Folk Tale') in that it implies something that is lost that can perhaps never be retrieved, or righted.

‘Par Avion’, an ode to air mail, lingers on homesickness as ‘an open wound’ and she seemingly lampshades these 'lost' themes in her work with the stanza:

Faces, half-recalled, revived by pen:
sisters getting married, fathers always busy,
babies getting born, you missing.
Taylor has a very self-aware, authoritative voice and it is striking to see how complete this collection is to itself. Although I cannot work out why the three sections to the book have been ordered so, there isn’t a single poem that does not belong. Put that down to a decent editor and a hard-working author.

Taylor does have a tendency to revisit ideas: ‘I keep my knees shut’ ('Thea') and ‘That I should keep my knees together’ ('Three Things I Learnt In Church') for example, but in the context of the collection as a whole, this works. It creates a fullness: too many collections of poetry turn out to be collections of poems. Not this one. Taylor creates big, beefy images, which sustain and keep you full until dinnertime.

The hit of the collection, for me, is ‘I Woke Into Birth’. It serves as the pinnacle of Taylor’s mastery of line-control and structure:

as if surgeons were washing up in the bowl of my womb
as if I were a matryoshka, exposing lathed children
as if a hunter had slit the belly of a doe to reveal butterflies’

I returned to this poem considerably during my inhalation of this book. All poets are at some point taught to not use too many images within a poem, as it leads to a kind of metaphor saturation which makes the writing inaccessible. This poem, perhaps in itself, taught me that if you have control over your structure and control over relevance, you can arrive anywhere you want to in a poem and let the reader look out the windows. It is Taylor's control within the line that means that the poem doesn't dry out from the weight of metaphor: everything that needs to be examined in a particular line is examined.

And it is this line-control that makes it the book. Pound would have it that poetry begins to atrophy when it is too far from music. I think Taylor would agree because she blends keen rhythm and timbre with informed verse and it is so akin to when good rock bands start bothering with their lyrics. She has a bass player in the walls of her writing hand.

Her poem ‘The Language of Slamming Doors’ could represent the collection, in that that she herself is a ‘joiner pointing out the scars’ of an old, empty house. She knows every bad floorboard, every secret passage. And she wants to show you.

Melanchrini is available from
Nine Arches Press.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Bird was born in 1991 and is the editor of Hinterland. She has been published in magazines including The Rialto, The Interpreter's House and Envoi. She currently lives and works in Guildford.

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