May 16 2020
Poetry Review – The Unmapped Woman: Rennie Halstead examines loss in Abegail Morley’s latest collection
Abegail Morley’s latest collection, The Unmapped Woman, charts loss in different settings. Morley is not looking at the general experience of loss, but digging deep into those unmapped parts of the psyche, especially the female psyche, that is often kept hidden. She takes us through pregnancy, childbirth and the loss of a child, the breakdown of relationships and the experience of losing a loved one, whether through suicide or accident. She explores what it means to feel and bury the experience deep inside, below the mappable surface. The whole is tied together by some extraordinary imagery that casts Morley’s meaning into a sharp new focus.
I had thought, initially, that this was a narrative sequence, especially the first part, focusing on pregnancy and birth, but that is to misunderstand the poet’s intentions. The collection is in three themed sections, each poem standing on its own, and adding to the overall meaning by its association with its neighbours.
This is not a gendered collection, but some of the experiences revealed pick up the female experience in a way that men, however sensitive, can only strive to understand.
The opening section is an extended conversation between an expectant mother and her embryonic child. In ‘Ultrasound’ the imagined voice of the child comments on her future:
I want you to hear me. I don’t yet know there’s only two months left with you, I don’t know it is not a love that lasts a lifetime.
The baby’s sense of being disposable continues in ‘Sweetheart’. Here the unborn baby reflects on herself as the product of an unwanted pregnancy.
Of all the babies, I am this one. The Sunday one, the late in the day one, the corner-shop, convenience store bagged one, the end of the week couldn’t keep one.
The mother’s dilemma develops as the pregnancy progresses. In ‘Daughter bulb’ the mother is talking to her unborn daughter, chronicling the experience of being pregnant:
You grow in me. I call you petal and your name buds on my tongue at night. […] I purr lullabies from sap-filled lips until your limbs purl like newly-woken shoots: fresh leaves wait for nursing, suckling.
The introspection moves on to record the physical experience of carrying a child
you sleepwalk inside me, make tiny footprints in blurred dreams, trail my spine with satin feet as if you own each and every inch of me.
The developing sense of heartbreak is shown more fully in ‘Lorn’. The mother reflects on the reasons for parting with her child as an apparently rational decision:
This is the first child I will make. The next one I will keep because I can. You are the one I have to let go down B-roads, down rickety lanes, down tracks I cannot travel.
Further reflection, and the enduring loss that will come from parting, is revealed in the last three lines:
the hush of my blood will find you as night’s dull ache moans on tarmac outside your bedroom window.
The book’s second section moves us into a different setting, examining the attempt to build a new relationship when memories of a previous love intrude. In ‘Past Love’ a woman recalls the beginning of a new relationship:
He tells me how planets orbit each other, offers five long stemmed roses, red-faced, shuffles from one foot to the other […] ends up asking in a snatched speech, What is the meaning of life?
Memories of a previous relationship flood back into her memory, and she feels unable to talk about this important part of her past:
I wonder if now’s a good time to tell him about you, but talk instead about the rising star of Orion […] I hope he’ll ask again, sometime when I’m ready
The memory won’t let go, taking her back to the details of that loss:
[…] the blooms of two roses fall like stardust, soundlessly, like you did, when somehow your life was sucked ever so gently, from your lungs. […] we spent that night wondering how the sun lit only other people
I picture the pair in my imagination, he with the roses, trying in his tongue-tied way, to find words of love, and she, seized by memory, drawn back to a previous time by the roses, and forgetting the new man.
We revisit the sense of loss in ‘Last Night’. The beautifully phrased opening leads us into a very personal sense of losing someone:
Nothing happens like winter. Not even the clock’s slow tick next to your hospital bed can deaden like snow.
By morning the lover has died:
I can’t take my hands from you, though the nurse tugs. I can’t take the way you are thawing when I’ve shut the blinds to keep out morning’s light
The final part of the collection looks at loss from a different perspective. This section examines the loss of a loved one, possibly a lover, though a brother and a twin are mentioned. The tone is set by the epigraph to ‘Grief: Stage 1’, a quotation from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: The reality is you will grieve forever.
‘Woods’ End’ explores this experience of grief:
[I] keep my own handprints in the pockets of my dressing gown so I won’t be lonely in my slow creep to you. Sometimes it feels as if I’m coming back to you; you’re in the bark of every tree, knotted in its whorl of rings
Part of the grieving process involves a detailed recall of the death:
[I] expect you to pull yourself from the sea hang your clothes on low branches so tomorrow they’ll dry as if nothing has happened.
But the reality of the death intrudes:
There are no trees where you fell, just cliffs that ricocheted your body, picked your spine until my memory of you loosens its grip.
And the memory of the aftermath, the coming to terms with the death:
I take your fall home in your van and we drive like strangers
[…] And I wait for you to settle, hear a whiff of music
. split the air in the house. And I say to you I hate that you did that.
I am sorry you did. And you nod and put out your hand.
The last poem of the collection, ‘End’, recalls the experiences that go into the making of memories, and the way a relationship develops. Morley examines the shared experiences that seem unimportant at the time, but become the building blocks of recollection, the small details that seep into one’s consciousness unexpectedly:
. Forget you. The ash of bone. The uncradled heart, leaky valve long scorched.
She remembers other shared experiences; driving on the M6, dancing all night and the beach:
Forget the sea and its snub-nosed wall, the hiss of shingle on sand, the plans we made at 2am to be bruised by life
She recalls the strength of their relationship, ending with:
Remember how we felt that night when we each held our breaths, met under an invisible sky. Remember how we said when you died, I’d try to forget.
Morley’s outstanding collection looks at the way loss is a continuing experience that lives on in us, long after the event, often as unbidden memories that can strike at inconvenient times. While parts of the collection have a gendered feel, all of us know the ache of losing someone. Morley’s poems speak to us about the nature of that experience, and remind us that remembering is a part of loving, and that our past is a living part of who we are today.
Rennie Halstead lives in Kent. He writes poetry and reviews.