reviewed by Anthony Adler
This collection’s cover, like its title, gives nothing away. Behind the author’s name and the enigmatic petals of an asphodel, the blind face of a statue stares back past the reader’s shoulder; ‘Melanchrini’ is simply the first word of the first poem, glossed tantalisingly at the bottom of the page as ‘dark-featured young woman’. Perhaps all the reader can learn from the outside of the book is that Maria Taylor will give nothing away. Melanchrini is a collection with a cohesive lyric voice that suggests decorously that it might be a poetic memoir. But even the politest sirens are both seductive and a warning: we should take the studied opacity of the title and the cover and the opening to heart (why else would it be given us?), and remember that reserve can reveal as much as it withholds.
Memory is the thread that runs through the heart of this collection and the lodestone to which its wandering needle unerringly turns
Admiring James Harringman’s sterling design work is easy; pinning down Maria Taylor’s poetry is slightly trickier. Were the book’s first section to have been published as a pamphlet, my task would have been easy. Mythology, anecdote and personal experience sit with fairytale and family history like colours in a paintbox, happy to be mixed, or like a zodiac of constellations that have long grown comfortable sharing the same sector of the sky. Were I merely reviewing the first section of Melanchrini, I would say that Taylor is a poet with a good ear for distinctive turns of phrase, a masterful sense for the weight of a line, a quietly wry sense of humour, and a regrettable tendency to splice her commas and do strange things with semi-colons. My verdict would have been that Melanchrini was cool, subtle, clear, stubbornly apolitical, and in need of a little polish here and there; but Melanchrini is a full collection rather than a pamphlet, and more needs to be said.
The second section opens with ‘A History of Screaming’, and Taylor collapses her emotional reticence like a Potemkin village. If the first section of Melanchrini can be summed up in the declaration in ‘Outside’ that
I feel I need to tell you that the petals are still bending to the light and I need to say that the sky is becoming a painting,
the second can be characterised by the bitter figure in ‘My Uncle’s Creed’, endlessly muttering
liturgies thrumming with the shoddiness of all mankind.
Like the mother and daughter of ‘Theodisia, Lacarna, 1955’, Taylor is busy revealing ‘the crewel work of the interior’; much like the innards of the poem’s fish, this new perspective shows the forces that drive and shape the world to be complicated, bloody, dispirited, and unromantic. These poems are raw and unsettling, more intimate and less inhibited than their predecessors: it is as though Taylor, no longer satisfied with writing on her own surface, has used a flensing knife to show the flesh and organs writhing underneath. At their most successful, these poems have ‘an angry music in [their] buzzing’ that ‘fizzes/ with determination […]/ thrashing its wings against the air’ like the trapped, imaginary insect of ‘Getting Rid’ – but more often than not they fall peculiarly flat.
I am put in mind of an apocryphal footnote to the Biblical creation myth in which the first woman made in Eden was neither Eve nor Lilith; rather, she was a nameless figure constructed layer by layer before Adam’s innocent and squeamish eyes, and, unable to forget the skull beneath her skin, he never spoke to her. The fault here may be mine, not least because there is often a great deal to enjoy – but these emotive, visceral poems often leave the aftertaste of something clumsily unfinished. One example shall suffice, culled from ‘Gull’:
One gull lands, squalling at my feet, spreading a cloak of indignant wings I throw it a corner of lunch, we meld, the city isn’t happening to us.
The image is well-drawn and beautifully executed, the last two lines are particularly memorable, the want of a full stop makes the whole thing tumble down a flight of stairs. Although in this particular instance I take no umbrage with run-on commas, they are used elsewhere to very little good effect and mostly serve to stifle the sense of Taylor’s sentences, set up stumbling-blocks for susceptible readers, and distract the pedantically-minded from a fine body of work.
Melanchrini, unlike football, is a game of three halves; in the final section, Taylor returns once again to her themes of age, experience, and exile in a clutch of poems that seem to be an attempt at synthesis after her extremes of wide-eyed distance and emotive near focus. These are poems less rooted in articulated experience or subjective feeling than in a self-awareness and rejection of comfortable certainty that borders on wisdom. Again, I do not always find them successful or convincing, but they’re certainly more hit than miss, and even the least satisfying poems demonstrate Taylor’s flare. By the collection’s end, much of what appears to have been exposition is deftly effaced, reduced to little more than ‘names written in breath’ (‘In Love’); the architectural history lesson of ‘Soapsud Island’ has been superseded by the admission in ‘Topography’ that
So many times I have mistaken films for memories, still the houses fix themselves
leaving us with nothing more concrete than ‘the music of longing, which repeats and repeats’ (‘Market Day’). With ‘Felling a Maiden’, Melanchrini’s closing poem, Taylor performs a vanishing act: she asks ‘And what did she bring to the altar?’ and tells us, as a final goodbye, that
I swallowed the heart whole. She was gone. The silence was everywhere.
Almost all that remains of Taylor’s last subject is the poem dedicated to her memory. While I’ve been happy to pick at Melanchrini’s faults as a collection, the way in which Taylor handles this theme isn’t one of them; memory is the thread that runs through the heart of this collection and the lodestone to which its wandering needle unerringly turns. The anonymous narrator of the first poem, ‘At Her Grandmother’s Table’, sets the tone by asking the opaque cipher Melanchrini a pair of rhetorical questions: does she remember a particular dawn breakfast with her grandparents, and does their inherited table,
[a] constant narcoleptic, a dead guest who slept as in a fairy tale through other people’s lives
remember either? In the poem that follows, a matriarch stares through the narrator to ‘yesterday’s village/ where bombs are hidden in melon stalls’; in ‘Asphodel, Revisited’, the reader is presented with the souls of the ordinary and indifferent, ‘unmemoried’ ‘after a bit of spaced-out skinny-dipping in the Lethe’; in ‘Soapsud Island’, the narrator contemplates the lost heritage of Acton with a refreshing and characteristic lack of nostalgia. The only intrusive ghosts between Melanchrini’s covers are the ones that don’t haunt in quite the way we might imagine that they ought to, like Taylor’s wonderfully dreamt-up Larkin or the deceased and absent ‘Auntie’; and trauma is something that Taylor’s characters and narrators carry with them like any other appendage, and although it is never quite neutralised it can, at least, be normalised. ‘If ghosts exist, the fear is in not seeing them,’ claims the narrator of ‘The Peveril of the Peak’, and it’s easy to agree. History is neither comforting nor threatening: the past is rich and mute and real, but it cannot conjure itself into a poltergeist and wreak anachronistic havoc; the past is just another aspect of the present as we live in, a place from which we are forever exiles and to which all of us, everywhere, can always look back.
Dr F sez: