Wednesday 29 January 2014

My Moriarty by Nichola Deane

When I open poetry books or magazines for the first time, it’s often at the back, or at random.  I’m glad I read My Moriarty from the front, because the first few pages of this Flarestack-published pamphlet gave me a memorable new-poetry-reading experience.  So much so that when Rialto editor Michael Mackmin said he’d got five poems by Nichola Deane, I couldn’t wait to read them.  (The Winter issue has just gone to the printers and will be out soon – I think it’ll be great.)

The opening poem in My Moriarty, ‘Elizabeth Bishop and the Card Table’, is a dream poem in which Bishop is “weirdly part of the fabric, ontological / as a chair’.  There are many dream poems around but few of them capture the essence of dream as effectively as this one:

and us playing a game the dream calls Intricacy and Gesture,
won and lost in the blind spells, the jump-cuts of sleep.
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,

Immediately the writer establishes herself as someone who can do both metaphor and metaphysics.  There’s also a sort of relish about this poem and throughout the pamphlet: it’s catching.

Subject matter has something to do with it.  This may be partly personal, though adoration of Bishop is a common enough phenomenon.  Next comes a poem, ‘Towards Suaineabhal’, containing a Hebridean mountain. “Nakedness / in rags, the bones of a thing in rags, unwilling / to plead” perfectly catches the lumpy bareness of that landscape.   Again, Deane gets at the essence:

How does a mountain occur to you? How can it?
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.

The largeness of that question and the whole passage has something American about it.  You can read the poem here.

Then there’s a list poem addressed to the letter/symbol/shape ‘X’, in all its manifestations from girder to kisses to

Exactitude, the place on the treasure map
discoverable only with all the difficulties
of ardour, subterfuge and double-cross,
or the double-loss found in the moment

the searching stops in exhaustion and want.

The sometimes punning echoes (exactitude/map, cross/loss/stops) are characteristic.  I think they help express relish.  The Bishop poem has “back… lack… blackly… fabric” in the first five lines.  A less stylish and precise writer mightn’t get away with it.  

All those three poems take unexpected turns – the reader’s inability to predict where next makes the act of reading feel like a fairground ride.

The next poem, ‘Maw’, is a sonnet, whose echoes take the form of gentle and irregularly placed half-end-rhymes.  The opening and end are especially beautiful; here are the first three lines:

We speak as if the heart breaks only once
when really whatever it is I mean by heart
dies in me daily as the Evangelist said it should.

Then there’s a long, raw yet controlled and very moving mother poem, with a difficult story behind it.  Not what one might have predicted from what’s gone before.  The same applies to the poem after that, in the voice of Fru Ida Hammershøi, the wife of the painter whose haunting interiors were exhibited in London a few years ago.  Rooms were either empty, or showed Ida with her back turned. 

Interior (1893) by Vilhelm Hammershøi
That’s a third of the way through the pamphlet and only with the next poem did I come back to earth.  A red dress lies discarded on the floor, bringing memories; the poem is accomplished by any standards, and my reaction only reflects the exceptional quality of what went before it. 

There are more exceptional poems towards the end, including the title poem, whose speaker takes delight in planning an encounter worthy of a love/hate relationship (“my darling conundrum”) more intriguing than anything in Sherlock.  Another empty mountain poem, with sun this time, reflects the  bleaker Hebridean version, and ‘Wittgenstein’s Deckchair’ on the final page mirrors the opening Bishop poem.  This time, instead of a dream-room it’s entirely imaginary, and “like a boat / between shores”.  Here again we get that winning combination of metaphors that really hit the spot and playful metaphysical speculation.  Here are the last few lines:

The clownish seriousness of pure endeavour!
Proximity of illumination, rest
and collapse are suggested by his choice of
anti-furniture; that and the taut fabric
of our lives stretching across time
carrying somehow our shape and warmth,
somehow taking all our weight. 

My Moriarty comes from Flarestack, who won last year’s Michael Marks award for pamphlet publishing.  You can buy it here.  It’s covetable externally too – very elegantly produced (apart from the pagination being out), its cover dark royal blue with white and silver writing, and egg-yolk yellow inside covers. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    I reckon that you know you're reading a good writer when you can't guess what comes next. Nichola Deane seems to have passed this test.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Yes, it's certainly one test, though would need to be accompanied by others!