This is your real name, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2020
There were days I spent gulping sky,
picking every star off the plate
with the stub of a thumb.
from ‘The eating of sorrow’
Elizabeth Morton grew up in Auckland. Her poetry has been published in various journals, both in New Zealand and internationally, and has achieved a number of award placements, including the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award. Her terrific debut collection, Wolf, was published by Mākaro Press. She recently finished an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow with Distinction.
This book was one of two poetry collections that I kept returning to during lockdown (plus Oscar Upperton’s). I found I could drift in and out of a poem, I could write phrases on sheets of paper, but I couldn’t string sentences together, let alone articulate a reaction to a book. What I could say was I loved it.
The epigraph felt uncannily fitting: ‘For people who wait and people who are alone.’
I had written down the word ‘detail’. Elizabeth’s deft handling of detail forms the visible stitching of a poem. It offers hue and texture to the multiple poem threads. The detail is a gateway to threads that are personal, universal, engaged in storytelling, recollection, contemplation, association, inquiry.
There are reading footholds and there are wobbly boards, especially in poems that are a mix of real life, memory, fable, fiction, enigma. The real is often elusive, but lands in shards, both striking and evocative. In ‘After’, two lines in particular catch this movement, and echo throughout the collection as a whole (and with me during lockdown):
Night comes apart, like everything else.
We know the landmarks for their hardness.
At the poem’s start, the speaker suggests closing one’s eyes is enough. Shutting one’s eyes is contemplative, an escape device, a pause. This is me in lockdown. I keep shutting my eyes and waiting. The poem features the last polar bear cage-pacing at Auckland Zoo and a butterfly caught on a truck’s windscreen. Two sad notes that alter the way we view the ‘you’ whom the poem addresses. It is the kind of poem you keep reading to absorb the dislocation, the absences, the mournings, the complexities. The ending catapults you back to the beginning which then returns to the eyes closing at the start. The ending:
When I open my eyes I’m in the same cage I was in yesterday.
I am the same yellow bear driving the same haulage truck
over ice sheets, thin as a prince’s hairline.
What night is this? We talk about the butterfly like it got away.
We talk abut you, like you are here. Like you never left.
Every poem works its magic on me – and the breathtaking effects are now heightened by lockdown. I am musing on how I have read this book before, during and after levels 3 and 4. I am writing this review in level 2, and I am wondering when everything I read and write won’t be touched by my Covid experiences. Yet this was the book that held my fuzzy attention.
Most of the poems are dense thickets, interconnected threads, offbeatness and misty bits to get lost in. The beginnings of poems are exquisite hooks:
You might make it, if you sprint.
I’m not going to cry. All winter the television
sulks in the corner of our love. You put the lentils
in a colander to flush the ugly bits.
from ‘You can’t, always’
Here I am turning the pages of the book, writing a review with my thoughts and feelings close up, because I stall on every poem and want to set up a coffee club in a cafe so we can talk about how we move through the poem thickets. Take ‘Aubade with hold music’ for example. You start with the image of a phone booth: ‘The phone booth was skull-cracked, / and caulked with soggy directories.’ Again the uncanny link. The reference to all the people we never know reverberates acutely in lockdown because that’s how I feel about the global Covid statistics. And how I have often felt when I drive down streets and wonder at the lives of the people I see.
The poem moves about a phone call to a mother, but then a central cluster of lines ‘shake’ the phone booth and you wonder what is going on behind the scenes of the poem:
The morning smelled like fire,
like the sun projecting simple stories
against the warehouse brickwork
and I wonder whether you know
you are melting.
Yes I could say this poem is about a phone call, a phone call about to be made; there is a small boy with coins, there are the White Pages, but then there is this: ‘This poem sets you apart, and / you are a small forest pressed against the city’. So mysterious. So ripe with meaning and possibilities. Each poem is like a little forest. Each poem is like a little forest pressed against us. How can we not stall and wonder. These lines stand out.
Writing a poem is a political act.
I want you to know, what you feel
is more than politics.
This is the joy of poetry: you think a poem and you feel a poem. It might be political or personal or a dense thicket, with multiple pathways and myriad connections to a peopled world. Elizabeth’s subject matter is wide ranging. Stories appear like neon lights or fleeting shadows or veiled self exposures. Sometimes it feels like the sun is out and sometimes like pitch-black night. The reading rewards are glorious. Find the book, make a coffee, and then let me know what you think. I am ever so grateful for the arrival of this book.
Otago University Press page