Last week I think I said something about worrying about a hook to hang the cobweb strand on. This week’s is quite shameless. I suppose I’d been working my way towards writing ‘reviews’ when I started sharing the work of poets who I thought might languish in obscurity despite their manifold talents – poets who hadn’t been published. They had that in common. At some point I wrote an appreciation of Julia Deakin’s work, because she said no one had yet reviewed her work, even though she had two published collections, as well as a Poetry Business winning pamphlet. But the first proper review I wrote was for The North, and by a happy chance, one of the collections reviewed was by my guest for today, Maria Taylor. I’ll plunder some of that review for this cobweb strand, with due acknowledement to The North.
I remember I was very nervous about it, and I thought I’d better read some poetry reviews, not only in The North but in other magazines and journals; I have to say that my heart sank. Maybe I was reading the wrong ones, but I was instantly time-warped back to university and the strange language of ‘Lit. Crit.’ It was a register I had to learn, but I hated it. All of it. I was informed, in no uncertain way, that I was not, on pain of derision and contempt, to use the word I. The reasons were never made explicit, but it was made very clear I had to assume an authority I did not have, and to use the word we. ‘We are not sure of the perfect grasp of the conventions of the sonnet’s rhetorical structure and authorial voice in this less than authoritative sequence.’ That sort of pretentious claptrap. We recognise. We are profoundly moved. Never you. The reader is taken on a lyrical journey into darkness. And I would think: how do I know what ‘the reader’ thinks. I only knew (on a good day) what I knew. I knew straight off what Tony Harrison was on about. Uz. Uz. Uz. I’m with Caliban. I’ll not thank you for learning me your language, Durham University. ‘We’. It’s an arrogant impertinence. I’ll tell you what I think. You can make your own mind up. We’re not in a fictitious, collusive relationship. It was still going on when, years later, I was marking undergraduate essays. I was told not to write on their work: What do YOU think? You’re not an authority. Just be plain and honest with me. If you don’t understand it, then tell me, and tell me why.
I have no patience with reviews that have an agenda of league tables and pecking orders, or with reviews designed to showcase the writer. Here’s an analogy. I’m addicted to Sunday Supplement restaurant reviews…well, to A.A. Gill’s, anyway, because I like acidulous writing. But you know the kind of thing when it’s bad. Where the reviewer riffs on his/her sojourn in Calabria or some remote upland village in the Tatras…for about 1000 words, and then spares a 100 for a dismissive review of a new Turkish/fusion joint in Notting Hill or Golders Green. Always in London. Or, at a pinch, Edinburgh. Their London. Their world. They sound like second rate Brian Sewells, but without the wit or scholarship that makes you not mind the strangely plummy enunciation. Stuff that, for a lark, I thought. Let me say thanks, right here, for Don Patterson’s new book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. That’s the voice I want to hear, authentic, idiomatic, partisan and partial. I reckon it gives me permission to write the way I want. You’ll either like it or you won’t but at least you’ll know what I think. And make up your own minds.
And so, having got that off my chest, let me set about persuading you why you should be as enthusiastic as I am about Maria Taylor, who I first met, like so many others, at a Poetry Business Writing Day, and whose company I have looked forward to ever since. Let me introduce you. Or rather, let her introduce herself:
‘I am Greek Cypriot in origin and was born in Worksop and lived in Notts as a child. My family moved to London when I was 6, after my father found it increasingly hard to find work in the local power stations. We lived in Acton. When I was 18 I went to Warwick University to study English Literature and Theatre Studies, and then onto Manchester University to study for an MA in English. I worked as a Teacher until I had twins at 30. After the twins were born, I found myself going back to poetry. I’d actually studied Creative Writing with David Morley at Warwick, but had strayed off the poetry path. It was partly David’s influence that guided me back to poetry. Since then I’ve been busy writing and reading. I’ve had poems published in various magazines, including The Rialto, Ambit, Magma and The North. In 2012, my first collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press and shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. I currently teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester. I also have a blog, find me at: http://miskinataylor.blogspot.co.uk/.
[Lets’s also add that she’s review editor for Under the radar, and asked me to contribute a review for that. Told you. Shameless hook].
When I first read Melanchrini, what caught my attention first were the poems that explore her ‘identity’ and the problems of identity that especially trouble (I think) her Dad, who finds himself a stranger in his homeland when he returns, years after. I grew up during the time of the British in Cyprus; one of my cousins, a few years older than I, was a National Serviceman, trapped on wire, under fire , under a hot sun, and under a truck, for 14 hours one day in the 50’s. Many of the neighbours’ lads were squaddies in Cyprus. It was good to be given the perspective of the poems about her parents’ families and their villages.
This is what I wrote about her in The North 
‘Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, whose title I take as the touchstone for the whole collection – melanchrini – ‘the dark-featured young woman’ ,it seems, is, and isn’t Maria herself. An alter ego, a persona, that gives her license to watch and comment. Born in England of Greek/Cypriot parents, she and many of her personae inhabit the edgelands of overlapping, and sometimes antagonistic, cultures where a sense of identity and belonging sometimes feels hard to come by. She has an uncle who’d refused to speak since ‘I married an ‘englezo’’. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to take on the full resonance of this, but you can do no better than to start with Thea. There’s enough backstory implicit in this to tell you exactly where you are:
She calls my mother copella,meaning lass elsewhere
………her icons scan me from walls, I keep my knees shut.
Thea would like to know if I’m married, so she asks
my father, who tells her ‘yes’ and ‘to an English man.’
She stares through me to yesterday’s village,
where bombs are hidden in melon stalls by heroes
and levendes, meaning lads, are hung from ropes.
The ‘levendes’, these ‘heroes’ were hanged by the British. As Maria’s character says in Ashodel Revisited ‘forgetting’s harder than you think’. It is for her aunts and uncles and cousins. And then there’s that odd little detail that appears in at least one other poem: I keep my knees shut. I like the apparent simplicities that carry complexities of emotion. I like that a lot.
I like, too, the way Maria Taylor can come across as edgily hip and sardonic. In 99/2000, as bells toll the end of the millenium: ……
somewhere around the eight we finished
the last hilarious fuck of the twentieth century
but the toughness and urban savvy isn’t exactly as it seems. Our love was still a secret..because mum and dad haven’t been told. Why is that? And there’s something hugely wistful about the last stanza, when she goes back alone to pick up her parents from her aunt’s house.
On the mantlepiece a calendar, with a Byzantine icon
of St Michael, his stiff painted wings trying to open,
my mum and dad wondering how long they’d keep hold,
me saying ‘Happy New Year, I’m here, let’s go home
Where exactly IS home? her poems ask, again and again. Her dad doesn’t know; he’s a stranger in his own village, and her mum is too busy at the Singer to answer. We’re not excluded, quite. But we’re on the edges, neither one place or another.
Maria Taylor can, like Hilary Mantel, ‘do’ hospitals, and their patients, like Frances and Belfast Annie (Ealing Hospital, August 2000), she can spring linguistic surprises, like the one of Auntie’s aphasic busrides to the supermarket; she inhabits the world of myth with great aplomb, and, with huge relish, recreates the urban world of markets and betting shops, and the older world of Soapsud Island, where
mewled around your knees, shedding Mary-blue tears..
I actually copied that poem out by hand, not least for those ‘slum-kitten children’. In the meantime, you can relish some new ones.
The first one, I was delighted to have. My cousin Brian might have been one of these squaddies, pink as flamingoes
Theodosia, Larnaca, 1955
Soldiers at St. Lazarus, sickening for home,
pink as flamingoes crowding the salt-lake in winter,
clustering in huddled stands. Theodosia ponders
overheard church talk. They don’t look like devils.
They wilt in khaki, grateful for a friend’s cigarette,
tilting fair heads to light from a match.
An exchange. She leaves her country for theirs,
Theodosia feels the weight and drub of summer sun
aware that the old life will soon be put to sleep,
yet she is still here, her mother’s remaining virgin.
Tea-skinned boys play around uniformed legs
begging for the smallest piece of English chocolate,
shoeless feet making a blur of Cypriot dust.
Theodosia feels a sting as she passes, knowing
dust finds a way into eyes, bringing tears.
She makes her way home to chores in a kitchen,
returning to her mother’s side, a living ghost
of blood and bone, they scale and gut in silence.
With the combing of a blade, scales loosen and fly,
knives rip through tangled waves of cord-knots,
heads kept low as hands work at their task
as a sea opens between them, a surge and swell
that carries away children, leaving emptied rooms
and vacant beds, the alpha and omega of loss.
Her mother speaks to virgins at night, but icons
refuse to answer. The quiet remains by day,
only the little sounds of ratcheting knives
speak for them, as they slit from belly to gill
confronted with the crewel work of the interior,
washing blood from their hands, starting again.
There’s riches in this poem. Emotional riches, and the rich sensate textures of things. Maria nails my attention instantly with unforgettably exact language..the combing of a blade, the crewel work of the interior. Completely surprising and right. It catches at my heart, this elegy for the emptied rooms of emigration, the lonelinesses of the left-behind. More of the sea in this next one, that I asked for because I’m haunted by the notion of mermen and selkies. Probably because I only understand them imperfectly, if at all. It just seems to me they are unspeakably sad, caught beteen sea and air, not quite knowing who they are or why.
I found him in a fishpond at a lonely end of the park.
His eyes reeled me in, under curdled waves. I felt a hook
pierce at my throat’s flesh.
I scooped up his thrashing body, carrying him to my bath.
I sang him underwater lullabies, but his tail stayed fixed.
A fin twitched in place of toes.
Nothing I gave pleased him: roll-mops, fish-sticks, cockles.
Soon, he outgrew my bath, water flowed over the edge
in hot, melancholy sobs.
My tame life was murder for him. He trilled and clicked
in a wild ocean tongue. Another world demanded him,
full of reefs, corals, anemones.
He didn’t even wave goodbye. I avoided the park, the pond.
I went over to the library, read books about old romantics
who’d lost mermen like me.
These women grew old while lovers grew young; taunted
by names writ in water. Somewhere, we must all be weeping,
in bathrooms, or alone at the bay.
What do I say about this? Nothing that it doesn’t say for itself. Matthew Arnold, John Waterhouse; eat your hearts out. And one more to finish this Sunday afternoon before I go and do something with aubergines and cauliflower, coriander and cumin, and then watch Scotland being thrashed by whatever the Southern hemisphere serves up (sorry about that. I have several passions, poetry and rugby being foremost). Last one, then.
Not About Hollywood
I sit next to Uncle Tony in the waiting room
who says he’ll be lucky to get six months
and can’t be sure if it’s his blood pressure
or the ghosts in his head that’ll kill him.
He wears a jacket removed from a corpse
with his life savings stitched under tweed,
‘So they don’t get at it,’ he whispers,
they being banks, governments, wives.
My mother’s seen it all. I was born
into melodrama. But we’re still here for him
the way a scratching post is there for a cat.
He talks. We listen to the silences.
Magazines find their way onto our laps
and we lose ourselves in other lives:
premieres, evening gowns, red carpets.
He gets up, humming something staccato.
His step falters. We tell him not to worry
as his name flashes in blood-red lights.
There’s a line that arrests me, My mother’s seen it all. I was born / into melodrama makes me want to spend time with Maria Taylor’s poems . Thank you Maria for being my guest. It was, as they say, a blast. Now, buy Melanchrini, and queue nicely while she signs the books. And then check out where these three poems first appeared.
‘Merman’ and ‘Theodosia, Larnaca, 1955’ were first published in Melanchrini (2012)
‘Not About Hollywood’ first appeared in ‘New Walk’ Magazine.
See you next week. Just in case, come dressed smartly. I hope we’re having a very important guest, but he hasn’t told me if he’s coming yet.