Alex Josephy finds Abegail Morley’s fascinating new collection builds to much more than the sum of its parts
This is an extraordinary collection. Abegail Morley’s graceful, mysterious and at times terrifying poems haunt me and won’t let go. It is in their nature to be hard to describe; to me, they are ‘negative capability’ stretched to its limits.
There is a central theme of ‘curation’; the poems could be read as a curated ‘body’, as in ‘Fonds’, early in the collection. But what is this body? On one level, the lines speak of a museum archive, in that sense a body of evidence, a collation of traces of the past. But although (in ‘The Depository’) ‘at its darkest point, nothing shifts’, this body is very much undead. There is a gathering sense of dispute over the ownership of the body, whose parameters are uncertain. Characters, artefacts and written records are given voice and express their resistance. Even a watermark can yearn for release.
I’m not supposed to be indelible. I just know the end is a glacier ready to breach…
A battle for definitions and control is being played out. The depository is a place of keeping, but poem after poem raises the question of who or what it is that binds, and who or what is bound. Can we hold and preserve the past, or does the past itself hold captive and control those living in the present?
At times, the curated items are distressingly human and the curator morphs into jailor or even, moving dee-per into ‘the howling dark’, something akin to a dungeon-keeper. Boundaries loosen between books and bodily relics.
He can crease us, snap open our spines, yet leaves us to blindly drift…
The sinister figure of the curator (and of other characters identified as men) recurs both in third- and first-person. His powers are at times terrifying.
He tells me he’s raked through my bones, flesh -fingers slow-drawn on a pistol that could blow our brains out.
At other moments, he is troubled by the ‘inky voices’ of his captives, who hover restlessly in the archives, ‘shadows pausing and unpausing themselves’, wonders ‘why I didn’t let them leave’. Although this is not necessarily the case in every poem, many of the characters ‘he’ curates are identified as women; the place is full of female voices crying out for release, and in this sense Morley offers glimpses into vertiginous depths of fear about power relations between men and women.
Other voices are woven into the mix: in ‘Chronicles’, there is a boy obsessed with his run-away sister (for me this evoked memories of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home’, but with a sinister twist); in ‘Occupied (in B&W)’, a woman seen on a bus (possibly in one of the curated photographs) turns out to have worked for the French Resistance broadcasting station, Radio Londres. ‘Navigating the Annals’ moves into slightly more familiar territory – just an old man ‘with tired hands’, perhaps lost in time, whose fingers explore the wallpaper,
seek clues in pattern’s arc, pocket them for later, when he forgets what he set off to find.
I’ve returned many times to one poem in particular: ‘The Bone Creaser.’ Centred on an archaic instrument used to crease and fold paper before stitching it into a book, this poem is as unfathomable and troubling as any in the collection. The language is beautiful in its clarity and economy. It is unclear to me whether the narrator is describing a coersive sexual act using the imagery of book-binding, or vice-versa. Coersive book-bindng would certainly be a possibility in the context of this collection, and in that context I think there is little difference. There is a woman, a (male?) narrator, and there is a book. The creaser, carved from bone, reminds the narrator of ‘the rise of her ribs.’ The narrator speaks seemingly tenderly of falling ‘into the shaft of her body’, and erotically of ‘dimples spread beneath my fingers’, but this entering is the action of a scalpel (‘I…slit open the weave’…) and finally the narrator, the sexual act and the desire to possess become identified with the process of stitching the book, in a final two lines that made me shiver:
I travel in and out, as if time is bound by kettle stitch, halt mid-thread so I can sew her back to me.
If all this sounds like a descent into a very dark place, it certainly is that. But I found light, joy even, in Morley’s exploration of the language of archiving. If like me, you are a fan of the stationery cupboard, these poems will feed your obsession. Bindings are here, and a metal-edged Hollinger box, foxed pages, the glassine envelope. I wish I’d been the poet to discover the ‘cut flush’, a type of folder with a name made for metaphor. Moving into PItt Rivers territory, (or even Star wars, perhaps), there’s a holographic embryo in a bell jar. Morley uses these containers as powerful images of confinement, evasion and eventually, escape.
And this is another joy. Throughout the collection, there’s an exquisite sense of unity and purpose; each poem is fresh and unique, and yet they build up to much more than the sum of the parts. And the stories move toward a conclusion. The final poem is in the voice of the curator, pathetic now, reduced to writing down the numbers of cars passing by on the London Orbital,
because numbers are important, they’re hatched chickens.
And something else has ‘hatched’, too:
When I reach for her, the box is dumbstruck, limbless. Somewhere in the curve of night she left for good.
I would not want to suggest that there is a ‘happy ending’ exactly; Morley poses questions with no easy answers. In the underworld she has created, anything that seems to settle might spring up to defy definition, like the woman in a footnote:
…a thought that hasn’t yet raised its hackles.
At every turn, this book unsettles even as it delights. I would describe ‘In the Curator’s Hands’ as essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary poetry.