Friday, 29 May 2020

Absence that disorientates, Abegail Morley's The Unmapped Woman

Some poets evolve by venturing into new subjects, new narratives, new locations. Others, meanwhile, burrow further and further into their core concerns, casting different perspectives on similar themes, grappling with them in fresh ways, layering them, building their nuances and ramifications.

Abegail Morley’s recent development, from her previous collection, The Skin Diary (Nine Arches Press, 2016) to her new book, The Unmapped Woman (Nine Arches Press, 2020), shows that she clearly belongs to the latter group. Her focus on loss, already a pivotal element, has now expanded its reach, its depth and its power to move the reader.

One clear example occurs in the opening pages to The Unmapped Woman, in the first lines of a poem titled Gravid. They can, of course, be read as the portrayal of a moment, of an incident. However, they can also be read as a declaration of poetic intent for the collection as a whole. They announce an exploration of the relationship between language and loss:

Not until after the front door slams shut
and absence sucks air from its cheeks,
do the words in her head, packed tight
as if on postcards, unhook their ink…

Moreover, when comparing The Skin Diary to The Unmapped Woman, one clear evolution is the scope of Morley’s ambition, her juxtaposition of varying losses, her demonstration that they’re united by key aspects such as dislocation via the disappearance of a sense of belonging. People anchor us. Their absence disorientates us and leaves us wondering who we are. This is clearly represented by the title to the new collection, as expressed in the closing lines of Where you used to be:

…When I go, I’ll unmap myself from this world,
tug pins like stitches, watch them stretch and snap.

The Unmapped Woman unfurls via a growing tension between the past and the present. This tension demands to be faced prior to any potential reconciliation between the two, and the consequent struggle is beautifully evoked in On having enough messages from the dead:

Your name is paperweighted to my tongue.
Each time I try to lift it, it bangs to the floor
of my mouth, bulky as a sandbag,
or an iron girder from that old advert…

The above extract also provides the reader with an excellent example of Morley’s technical virtues: her natural rhythms, delicate control of line endings and supercharging of specific, unusual verbs.

As The Unmapped Woman draws to a close, it gradually turns into an implicit revindication of the role of language in dealing with loss and absence, poetry becoming a means of overcoming emotional dislocation. Abegail Morley’s work reminds us that we can deal with the present and the future thanks to the verbal and artistic expression of the past. These are poems that not only embrace life but encourage us to do so too.

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