Division Street must be one of the most anticipated debut collections in some years. Helen Mort won the Foyle Young Poets award five times, received an Eric Gregory Award in 2007 and the Manchester Young Writers Prize in 2008. In 2010, Mort became the youngest ever Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust, and her second pamphlet, a pint for the ghost (tall lighthouse), was a Poetry Book Society Choice. It is no surprise then, after such an early career in poetry, that Division Street is a mature debut rich in the imagery of relationships, conflict and reconciliation.
The most successful poems display a Burnside-esque connection with animals, an understanding that they mirror our own existence. Deer by Mort’s family home are poignantly likened to her mother: “their eyes, like hers, that flicker back / towards whatever followed them”. In ‘Fox Miles’, an encounter with a vixen, “supple as a dream I can’t call back”, seems to echo Mort’s connection to the city:
And what she sees she cannot tell,
but what she knows of distances,
and doesn’t say, I know as well.
Mort was raised in Sheffield and revels in detailing its landscapes and local characters, in pointing out “each lit window in town”. Her memories are plush and visceral, reverberating from every street throughout the collection, as she recalls in the title poem, “you brought me here to break it off”.
While a handful of poems feel slightly underdeveloped from their original idea, these are only highlighted by the refinement of so many of the others. Mort’s voice is assured, empathetic, and confident enough to tackle the subject of the miners’ strikes before her birth in an impressive sequence, ‘Scab’. Here, the running battles with police and sense of division are evocatively imagined before Mort turns a mirror to herself. Her acceptance for Cambridge surfacing that sense of betrayal and distrust she felt accustomed to having grown up in the aftermath of Thatcher’s Britain: “You’re left / to guess which picket line / you crossed”.
This is a self-assured and exciting collection, taking delight in details and beautifully capturing those moments of stasis that seem to reflect whole lifetimes: “In the kitchen, Dad sifts flour,” Mort tells us, “still panning for something.”