Wednesday 23 September 2020

Review by Sarah James of "Dressing for the Afterlife" by Maria Taylor

Even just a few poems into Maria Taylor’s Dressing for the Afterlife, I realise there are many options for how to approach this collection, many themes and threads that I can trace through it.

The opening ‘Prologue’ gives us dressing for the afterlife as learning to 'breathe again,' having stepped into the moment where 'you ended a former existence / and zipped yourself into the unknown.'

The examples of possible outfits to wear hint at the poems to come, as does the opening poem ‘She Ran’ with its list of things run past, the poet having taken up running at the age of forty. This culminates, as summer turns to autumn, with:

          I couldn’t get as far as I wanted.
          The lights changed. My ribs, my flaming heart
          and my tired, tired body burned.

In many ways, the following similarly beautifully pared, moving (and also at times humorous) poems enact and extend this opening, taking the reader through personal past experiences. Some read like the poet’s own; others feature advice, adopted voices and celebrity lives. The book closes with a counterpart to the opening poem ‘Woman Running Alone.’

Afterlife here is not what happens after death but the afterlives within this life, especially women as they age. 

          In summer I was a night-blooming flower.
          By autumn I was a hangover. Winter made me
          a Wall-Street Crash.

I used the word ‘personal’ earlier but this collection is personal in a universal sense, borrowing others’ clothes (experiences) and drawing out wider similarities and significances. This poem, 'I Began the Twenty-Twenties as a Silent Film Goddess,' is a film star talking (in industry terms), but it’s the continuing experience too of many other women now.

For me, Dressing for the Afterlife is also about finding, or reinventing, an individual’s sense of ‘self’ against this and many other backgrounds.

          I trespassed.
          At night I found myself ice-skating
          into someone else’s life.

I can read this poem ('Awake in His Castle') in a Bluebeard sense, but I feel it also chimes at a real life level – in trying to establish and make sense of individual identity, power dynamics and dangers at play all around us.

Another reading of the collection, not unconnected to that above and completely fitting with running, is the sense of everything in continuous flow. Water is a recurring image. 

‘The Floating Woman’ is a memorial to Lauren Stephen, half-sister of Virginia Woolf. The poignant Ophelia-like imagery has death / suicide as a sense of ‘returning’ to water, and life as rivers poured over the narrator. Everything feels fluid, form-changing, transient. This also applies to language: 'how every word / turned into water.'

Meanwhile, in 'The Fields,' 'rain dissolves / a  landscape you thought familiar' and the poem observes 'your place in this world an ever-shifting thing.'

Flow is present too in life’s dance and our steps of learning: 'We dance to learn about a part of ourselves / books can’t teach; it’s what our parents expect' (‘Learning the Steps’). In this case, that includes the moves of old island lives and leaping like salmon (water and flow), 'trying to catch scent of home, / as music pours through speakers like flood.'

It’s also in the passing and nature of time:

         People vanish into thin air every single day,
         even ghosts fade in time ….
         You’re no different. Look, here’s your own reflection.

More than this though, it’s in the pace of the lines, the use of recurring motifs, choices of line-breaks and punctuation, including the end of ‘Mr. Alessi Cuts the Grass.’ Here, a noise like a neighbour pushing 'something larger than dreams / over concrete' expands into a whole poem that ends on the full-flow leaving open of all possibilities of 'but for a moment –'

That the final poem of the collection ends with a similar dash is even more significant in these terms, as well as inviting the reader to re-submerge themselves in the collection, re-reading for more possibilities.  

Other strong elements for me in Dressing for the Afterlife include romantic hopes and family love, and with them the sense of belonging, or not belonging (as present in some of the poems already quoted).

In ‘The Distance,’ the narrator’s family can’t get the hang of England, as lives are scattered into flats, people calling to each other from balconies instead of olive groves:

         Years later I throw open my windows to rain
         knowing my aunt’s echoes won’t travel the distance,
         I’m here, I say to water, can’t you shout any louder?

Meanwhile, in ‘Role Model,’ famous and seemingly glamorous potential role models are rejected for the woman next-door with 'a walk that says I know where I’m going.' 

And yes, all these loop back and together with the elements of water, dance steps, the essence of ‘self,’ the nature of life, society and time: 'Maybe time moves like a figure of eight, / surging forwards then back on itself' (‘Loop’).

That poetry can, maybe even has to, exist outside of time is evident hopefully in the scope of what I’ve already quoted. Imagination does too and this is inherent in many of Taylor’s poems here, including those that place deft light-hearted observations side by side with sharper emotional insights and lines.

In ‘Hypothetical,’ the 'conversational frolic' of a friend asking the narrator if they’d sleep with Daniel Craig is a wonderfully humorous poem. But it also speaks to the nature of the world we live in with its sometimes obsession with celebrity-status and lives turned into public drama.  ‘How to Survive a Disaster Movie’ is similarly deliciously light-toned yet profoundly chilling. 

These are some of the ways I have read this collection. The beauty of strong poems is that they leave space for the reader to find their own truths in them, having given the images, ideas and narratives to do this with. This sense of multiplicity of paths and routes – in life, identity and reading – is most explicit in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ another poem that is simultaneously funny and heart / dream-breaking.

Reading and re-reading Dressing for the Afterlife, I’m struck by new and different striking images, lines and resonances. Each time, now matter how deep these may cut, I come away with a sense too of exhilaration, much like the woman of the closing poem:

          The rhythm fills her with flight – 
                                            and her wings,
                                                   what wings she has –                             

About the reviewer
Sarah James/Leavesley is a poet, fiction writer, journalist, photographer and editor, who also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her latest project is an Arts Council England funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room. Website:

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