Catching up: Maria Taylor’s “Dressing for the afterlife”

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Hey, you guys, you gotta wear ties on the weekend! : Eddie Cochran

We had Weekends when I first started this poetry blog, and Sundays were for writing poetry blog posts. I didn’t always want to, but the routine was the thing. A bit like Saturday night being all right for fighting. Or the way that Saturday nights before television were for going to the cinema or the Mecca. 

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Something has happened to time, to weeks and weekends in the last 14 months. Isolation, shielding and lockdowns effectively meant there were no trips out, no holidays, no shopping. Shopping was something a neighbour did for us, or, more alarmingly, what I did late at night via Google, so that Amazon kept delivering stuff I couldn’t quite remember ordering. In theory I could have got up and gone to bed at any time, since all times were much the same…..but the sun rises and sets and there is some kind of rhythm to hang on to. It’s just that the names of days don’t signify. There have been weeks when for three days in a row I might say things like I keep thinking it’s Friday. The routines slip. 

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Shortly, there will be no excuse. For a week now I’ve been relishing the heady excitements of getting in the car and driving to shops, of mooching round Wickes and B&Q, of buying gravel. Taking in the novelty and odd normality of sanitising stations at the doors of Sainsbury’s and the Tesco garage; the arrows and two-metre space markers on the floors. In odd ways, beyond the  news headlines, this is not my country, not exactly. I don’t speak the language, or at least, not fluently. I’ve lost my tongue. I stutter.

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So here I am, writing this on Bank Holiday Monday, which actually feels like a Sunday. Somehow I’m a week behind, again. One day I’ll know what day it is, and what I need to do on it. One day, maybe, I’ll really catch up. In the meantime let me say how pleased I am that Maria Taylor is today’s guest. I haven’t seen her since January 2020, in the far off days when writing workshops were in places like the Millenium Gallery in Sheffield, on frosty mornings. I’m mentioning this for a bit of serendipity…the poem she took to workshop in the afternoon was I began ther twenty-twenties as a silent film goddess is now the second poem in her second collection which was published last year, and which I will share with you all today. 

[and now today is Tuesday. Lordy lordy. Not sure what happened there……it’s an odd business, coming down from chemo and coming off steroids. I was tired. Simple as that. Fingers crossed I get the job finished today.]

What I was about to say, yesterday, is that I remember two things about the afternoon workshop. One: it was in part of the art gallery, and there weren’t quite enough chairs to start with, and people kept peering in to see what we were up to. Two: I was knocked out by Maria’s poem and I said so, and afterwards managed to tell her that it felt like she was stepping up a gear, pushing the envelope, writing more boldly. I didn’t mean this in the way that one reviewer did.  

In a “Litter” review, Alan Baker talks about an impressive achievement in which the poet’s move towards a language-driven poetics bears fruit in apparently simple poems about immediate experience which are woven effectively with more adventurous poetic structures

There are certainly poems like  Everything is is a fight between winter and spring (which is left- and right- justified), and And there she was in the shrunken apatrment… (which is right-justified) and Moon in Gemini which is right-justified and which, fashionably, uses forward slashes to break the lines. 

But what I meant had nothing to do with form/poetics, and games with shape, but more about what John McCullough meant in his back cover endorsement:  Maria Taylor’s new collection is exhilaratingly bold…[the poems] are constantly surprising. It also had something to do with what Kathy Pimlott calls her extravagantly vagrant thought paths (though I didn’t know that at the time ).You’ll see what they meant, shortly.

Maria was a guest poet for the cobweb back in 2015. There’s a link at the end of the post if you want to know more. At the time, I’d written a review of her first collection for The North, in which I said

‘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.’ 

I also said: ‘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.’

When I went back to this earlier post, I think I nailed what I’d meant when I said that the new poems were ‘stepping up a gear’. I think I meant that this poet in 2020 is surer of who she is, and who knows exactly what she’s up to when she inhabits all manner of edgier personae. The wistfulness is nore likely to be replaced by a hard-won confidence and swagger. Maybe Matthew Stewart puts it better, more accurately:

‘Throughout Dressing for the Afterlife, the reader is witness to the unfurling of a poet whose comfort in her own skin is attained by acute self-awareness. This enables her to explore issues without the need to resolve them. One such theme is that of her national identity, always approached obliquely as in the following extract from ‘She Ran’:

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‘I ran through my mother’s village and flew past

armed soldiers at the checkpoint. I ran past

my grandparents’ and Bappou’s mangy goats

with their mad eyes and scaled yellow teeth

I ran straight through Oxford and Cambridge

didn’t stop……………’

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It begs (he says) the question: where does she/the poet/the narrator belong? When I read and re-read this collection, I’m more and more convinced that she knows the answers, now, in a way she didn’t, six or seven years ago. The distance travelled is measured beautifully in the first and last poems in Dressing for the afterlife. Both are about running. 

The first, She ran opens on a note of what, defiance?

                       ‘ I took up running when I turned forty

                         I opened my front door and and started running’

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and ends: ‘I couldn’t get as far as I wanted’ . 

In the final poem of the collection, in Woman running alone, she has become ‘a woman who follows her own trail’. It’s a poem that ends with a wonderful affirmation:

  ‘The rhythm fills her with flight – 
and her wings,

what wings she has –’. 

 

To which I say Amen. Time for the poems, I think. The poems I asked for are not, I suppose the obvious ones, the ones that inhabit glamorous personae. But each in its own way has stuck. The first one because of its ..that  word again..swagger. But also for the ending, its surefootedness. It was first published in what feels like the prototype of this collection, a pamphlet from Happenstance. Instructions for making me

 
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Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood

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I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap and PVA glue running through their veins. My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow. I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print. I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners and clothes pegs. There are instructions for making me. Look at the appropriate shelves in reputable stores. I am fascinated by bunk beds, headlice and cupcakes. You will only leave the table when I have given you clear instructions. So far I have not. The school-run is my red carpet. Yes, you’re right, how do I manage it? Though, I didn’t ask you. Dreaming is permitted from 7:40 to 8:20 am on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. My children’s reward charts are full of glittery stars. I am the Milky Way. Crying is dirty. One housepoint! Two if you eat up all your peas. I always go off half an hour before my alarm. In the morning I speak a language of bleeps and bell tones. Chew with your mouth closed. No. Don’t chew at all.  Admire the presentation. Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers. Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper. 

Sometimes I am mist.’

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I loved this one, straight off. I read Facebook posts by mothers who have all in one way or another been persuaded by a child’s tantrum that that they are doing it wrong, that they don’t know the rules, that they are a Bad Parent. It always seemed to me as a very young father (equally guilty of being a Bad Parent but not made to feel like it) that there was a closed shop of Mothers Who Know but that any individual mother is not allowed to belong to it and is frowned upon for not knowing the rules. Here’s a poem for them. The last line, almost an afterthought, tells you what it takes out of you…the effort, the bravado. The last line nails it. Lovely.

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The next one comes as a surprise in the collection. I wanted it for its craft, the accuracy of language, for its precision, its pin-sharp images.

The Bee-Bird

We duly found an inscription under the base, 

believed to be in Sir Vauncey’s hand… We could 

make out its name, ‘the bee bird’… ‘died 1895.’ 

  • notes taken at Calke Abbey

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In his cabinets of wasted wings

a heron’s beak clasps a fish,

its convex eyes a jet prison.

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Bell-jars of hoarded birds

stuffed with their master’s tedium:

faded goldfinches and redpolls,

a frozen kestrel, wings unstretched

for impossible flight.

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I imagine his birds reborn,

darting through his stuffy rooms, 

a chaos of feathers in his Lady’s boudoir 

across the airless library. 

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Unhatched eggs crack open.

Chicks beg, hungry for more

than sawdust and rags.

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And there at his sash window

a yellow and black canary, 

tiny and alive – singing, singing. 

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It needs no commentary, really. It speaks beautifully for itself, this poem about defiant resilience, about song. And maybe, too, about poetry.

Finally a poem about love; it adds to the list which includes the kind of love called maintenance, and to what will survive of us. Particularly it was good to learn about

                                                  philautia,

loving the self. Not so easy. For others 

who dive into pools of themselves

too easy. Be your own best friend.

I wondered when I read it again , and then again, if this was not the core message of the whole collection, written by someone who understands just how and why it’s not so easy.

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Learning to love in Greek

They said beware eros, though many 

begin with madness. Learn to fall

in love with dancing – this is ludic

the love you felt for skipping ropes

or bikes. If eros and ludus combine 

you may suffer mania, the white blood 

of the moon that petrifies. Grow phillia,

the love of football fans on terraces.

Chant together. Fight with the same heart.

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If you have children or a puppy

you’ll know storgi, it rhymes with be.

It sits at kitchen tables, magnetises 

crayon drawings to fridges. If you don’t

have these, you may feel storgi

from an old aunt, a mate. A lover

might see the child hiding in you

from a cowlick of grey that won’t

be brushed straight. Then philautia,

loving the self. Not so easy. For others 

who dive into pools of themselves

too easy. Be your own best friend. 

When love moves into a house

with a mortgage and enough space

for the future, this is pragma.

To stand in love comes after falling.

Pray you’ll land on your feet. 

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Above all, agapè – when you forget 

who you are and take someone’s hand.

Dressing for the afterlife is one of those rare books that does pretty much what it says on the tin (or on the back cover) :

 a diamond-tough and tender second collection of poems and how we adapt to the passage of time.. these poems shimmy and glimmer bittersweet with humour and brio. 

The poems in Melanchrini were about personal and cultural identity, always asking ‘where do I fit?’ These poems are surer about the answer. In She ran, (which tangentially reminds me of Dylan’s what did you see my blueyed son?) whether running away or towards doesn’t get the narrator what she wants or waht she thinks she wants. By the end of the collection she’s grown out of or beyond the glitzy masks and personae she’s tried on:

‘I’d like to be the woman next door

with a walk that says I know where I’m going

or in Wearing red, like wearing purple, it’s not a disguise.

In Woman running alone she is

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                                                               ‘neither running away

                     nor running towards anyone, wind-sifted

                     letting the weather sing through her,

                     she who is different to her brothers.

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                    The rhythm fills her with flight –

                                                  and her wings

                                                      what wings she has –

Isn’t that satisfying! That’s what I meant by the poems having stepped up a gear. Thank you for letting me share youe poems Maria Taylor. I’m sorry it’s taken so long.

…right, my lovely readers. Off you go and buy the book.

Dressing for the Afterlife: Nine Arches Press [£9.99]

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And here’s the link to the earlier post

.https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/10/18/reviewing-the-situation-and-a-polished-gem-11-maria-taylor/

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One thought on “Catching up: Maria Taylor’s “Dressing for the afterlife”

  1. You’ve been catching up for weeks, John, all the while writing cobwebs that I don’t get round to responding to. The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away. Paul Simon got it right. I really enjoyed this post and the snippets of Maria Taylor’s poetry that you shared with us. Thanks! Jean x

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