Flarestack Poets, 2012,   £4.50


Reviewed by Michelle Smith, Jake Campbell and Richie McCaffery

Michelle Smith:
Clarity. Precision. Mystery. Those are the three words I’d choose to describe Nichola Deane’s My Moriarity, if I had only three to choose. Fortunately, I’m also free to comment on the quality of distilled emotion, as well as the way the imagery lingered in my memory. I’m also free to apologize for however irreverent it may appear to have ‘mystery’ on a list of words about a collection entitled My Moriarity when I do not intend any irreverence at all. A quality of mystery and wonder permeates these poems, and the collection is driven by a pursuit of what is ultimately ungraspable – language, for instance. What are these poems are communicating about language and our relationship with it? Take these lines from the opening poem, ‘Elizabeth Bishop and the Card Table’, for example:

Whatever she says, and I can’t know now, ever,
it’s the feeling in the words that stays and stays,
that’s in me this moment, sweet and flickery
like the flight

of a wren, tail-up, here before it got here,

her eyes in me sparking like shine on a darkening road.

Deane’s suggestion of lost words, through which a feeling remains, threads its way through the rest of the book, lending it coherence. I thoroughly enjoyed the title poem, ‘My Moriarity,’ in which the speaker describes her nemesis as “You with that spidery-voice,/ all machinating, echoey, hoaxy-coaxy”. I love “hoaxy-coaxy”. It’s fun, and it contrasts wonderfully with some of the more serious or, in some cases, zen-like poems in this book.

What didn’t quite work for me were the moments of ethereal abstraction, particularly in the sequence “Some of the Simple Prepositions.” I like Deane’s poetry most when she blends together the dream-like and the concrete with poems like ‘Second Skin’, or ‘Maw’,in which the speaker asks:

What matter if there’s only ever gap and vertigo,
dear heart of maw and abyss? Let’s do it. Let’s try.

Jake Campbell:
At the heart of this collection is a five-part sequence called ‘Some of the Simple Prepositions’, in which Deane seems preoccupied with taking a simple idea and spinning it out until that idea barely resembles the initial conceit. It’s a simple manoeuvre, effective because of the tangential qualities it affords. “Where am I at now? I think” opens the poem, straightforwardly enough, before quickly moving into a more philosophical realm, questioning what it means to be in a place:

dance on the head of this pin;

in one monosyllable the spin
on where we are and how.

As the poem continues, personal narratives begin to seep in, Deane managing the difficult trick of balancing the personal against the abstract, particularly in part v. of the sequence:

I want to come between you and the world,
between your skin and your lover’s.

Yes, there’s something slightly sinister about this, but its no-frills rawness is admirable.

The title poem, ‘My Moriarty’, is intriguing. On a cursory read it seems somewhat superficial (at first I thought it worked better as the pamphlet’s title than for a single poem). On closer inspection, however, there's more going on and I like it:

Up on the Reichenbach Falls, Moriarty
just you, me, and a fluttering rainbow-hued
nimbus of mist.

The scene is set for our heroine to face her nemesis, or so we think, until she begins recounting his physical features – “the curve of your right eye socket,/ the way the corner of your mouth lifts when you smirk”. While fairly gruesome in its depiction, this seems to me the behaviour of a person dumbstruck in love. The poem’s ending – which, I’m pleased to say, doesn’t provide a grand dénouement – is superb.

‘Wake’, in which a storm acts as a metonym for an argument, is urgent, bitter and packed with neat imagery – “the skull of the house”; “dazzle of wet tarmac” – but its wildness lacks the anchoring of other poems, and as such, I’m not awfully bothered by what it is the couple have (or have not) to “say out loud/ what we breathe through.”

‘Maw’, which has a terrific opening line – “We speak as if the heart breaks only once” – is plagued somewhat by a tendency towards hyperbole (“My heart [ . . .] knitting, suturing/ a thousandfold, a thousand times a day!”), but ends more pithily on a call to arms:

What matter if there’s only ever gap and vertigo,
dear heart of maw and abyss? Let’s do it. Let’s try.


Richie McCaffery:
This handsome blue pamphlet has an aura about it, perhaps because it carries a glittering endorsement by Douglas Dunn, praising Deane’s “sculptured, vocal and beautiful” poetry.

For once, this is a work that lives up to such an accolade. It is as erudite and allusive as it is emotive and confessional. Here we see poets and philosophers such as Elizabeth Bishop and Wittgenstein as we have never imagined them. But the strength of this pamphlet lies less in these dramatic pieces than in its personal moments of insight and introspection. The deepest thinker here is not Wittgenstein, but Deane herself, who writes in the stark but lapidary poem ‘Towards Suaineabhal’:

A mountain happens to you while its strata stay put:
it is slipping forever under your thought
remaining and remaining while you can’t help but move
through time and space like a leaf unleashed from its tree.

[ . . . ]

Whatever is unwanted or unloveable
in you, or too wanted and loveable, would soon die
of exposure if left out on its high ledges,
and so your heart quickly climbs and descends it,
leaving a girl-child, a sickly elder there.

Poetry of this quality is rare. One of the most arresting pieces is Deane’s quirky tribute to ‘X’ with all its possible associations and connotations. It is inspired writing with a surface wit that lightens the profundity of its message:

Strut of things, and scaffolding,
Frame for wire on beaches, siege of a sign:
In your no-man’s land of anti-signature,
You are world-crux, wound out of grapheme.

[ . . . ]
oh letter of loves, of blanks
of excisions, of blottings and holdings back

While there is a quiet dignity and occasional dark wit to Deane’s voice, it is nonetheless tested in the harshest and rawest of situations, such as in ‘A St Christopher for Iris’ where two daughters are blamed by their mother, who carries “her miscarried/ fetuses strung round her neck like Kali”. It is Deane’s composure that gives the poem its impact:

Her lost Christopher,
who died of his cleft palate within days,
he of the broken mouth

[. . . ]         Dearest,
my Christopher, I wear you like a pilgrim’s medal
as I shoulder you, mother, carry you above it.

This is powerful revelatory and redemptive work, and amply shows us what can be achieved within the constraints of a pamphlet.