Review of Abegail Morley’s “Snow Child”

Snow Child (Pindrop Press, 2011) is Abegail Morley’s second poetry collection. Her How to Pour Madness into a Teacup (Cinnamon Press, 2009) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize Best First Collection.

The poems in Snow Child are set in familiar or everyday places – houses, neighbourhoods, school yards, hospitals, coffee shops, sidewalks, buses, back yards, the garden shed, or the seashore. But what startles is finding ourselves so directly inside the speaker’s mind – seeing through her eyes, experiencing her feelings.

We aren’t told if it’s the same narrator in these poems, but a thread seems to run throughout – a voice – that weaves together the poems and the gamut of feelings, often painful, when the speaker must deal with personal losses and the grieving that comes with losses. I imagine her as someone recounting episodes, sharp-eyed and honestly, in bits and pieces, of a life fully lived.

Typically, in these poems, the reader is left considering the multiple possibilities of what has happened – or could happen. Morley is exquisitely skilled at this delicate balancing of scenarios, so that we feel the immediacy, the “now-ness”; how it feels to carry on – from moment to moment, from day to day. Often, the speaker struggles to communicate with the “you” of the poem. In “Portrait”, the speaker and another person (unidentified to the reader) make a strangely intimate connection: “We stand in the rain, my eyes on yours,/ A taxi reflects its lights in your pupils”. The other person says something jumbled and unintelligible about “spiritual plans”. The speaker wants to reassure the other person, say she’s fine, but can’t manage to speak the words. So much happens of great importance in these poems, within the mind of the speaker that may never get said out loud.

Recurring themes interweave through the poems – love, relationships that end or may end or should end, sickness, death, memory. Life is difficult, yes – but I came away glad for the beauty of life, its constant surprises and for the power (and reality) of imagination.

One of my favourite poems is the “The gift”:

Our hands hover as if under new instructions.
The insides of my wrists spill lemongrass,

gardenia and patchouli into the room
and on the table a brown paper bag

untwists itself, unwraps its gift with a kiss.
It spreads itself out.

Disquietingly for the reader, the bag reminds the speaker of a “Shuar shrunken head”, the mystery grows and “I half expect to see moon dust”. The gift turns out (wonderfully) to be freshly dug organic carrots brought to her by the beloved.

Morley’s precise, understated, technically accomplished style helps us to look at (and experience) hard things. There is the death of an unborn child in the titled poem who is imagined “lost to a glass jar”:

You spit my name
a tiny ball of phlegm
keeps itself in a tight circle.

I retch.
There are teeth in it.
It has a possessing smile.

And some of the relationships are abusive, as in “Domestic violence” where the speaker describes her situation with horrifying fairy-tale type wit and the poem ends with a transformation: “By morning I’m a wooden spoon, rooted to the kitchen floor./ Quite still, waiting to beat myself for my stupidity”.

Another favourite poem is the short “Sea”. It has a mythical feel – the speaker will “hang seaweed on a doornail./ It is psychic, predicts all manners of things”. She “waits for the sun to die” and then: “Pursing my lips and whistling across the sea,/ I bring home the wind, the tide turns.” It makes me think of the St Anthony legend. It would have been aptly placed as the last poem. But perhaps I feel that way because I’m here in Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic and can almost hear that whistle, calling me.

A woman in one of Robert Frost’s poems, “A Servant to Servants” tells a visitor “the only way out is through”. And that’s also a message that I receive from the poems in Snow Child. And I receive human company. And wisdom. And courage.

The beautiful artwork for the cover is by Jenny Meilihov.

Abegail’s blog is “The Poetry Shed” and it’s one I keep a close eye on – she posts  featured poets and poems, interviews and news.

Review by E.E. Nobbs

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