A review of Melanchrini by Maria Taylor

The vividly filmic opening poem of this book is both addressed to and voiced by melanchrini, the ‘dark-featured young woman’ of the collection’s title.  The poem encapsulates a key aspect of this collection, namely  Maria Taylor’s ability to inhabit and carry the voices of her ancestry whilst maintaining a detachment which enables her to have a conversation with the past.

Hers is a voice with cross-cultural heritage, a voice arising from immersion in two very different cultures , the voice of a child who is from her people but not of them.  In this, and in later poems, there is a sense that the offspring of this heritage will always be loved, even if her choices will not necessarily be understood or approved of by her Cypriot family.  In four short stanzas we are introduced to a timeless rural Cyprus where the day begins with strong coffee being made by a grandmother while ‘the sun waited a little before rising’.   Does the child, and later the young woman who sits in her place as ‘a cockerel crows and years went by’, belong here?   We are entering the world not only of the second generation immigrant with their immersion in cultural and geographical contrast, but also of the generational migrant who is leaving behind the centuries that shaped her forbears.

It is this early exposure to dualities which enable intense and vivid recollection of moments observed, at once familiar and yet strange in the context of her later adult life in another county.

This sense of duality is mirrored in images and within whole poems where ethereal, dreamlike or hallucinatory qualities come up against the concrete-hard descriptions of daily life, where the rural meets the urban, where below the surface of the everyday there are other lives, other stories, some lost in the passage of time. A line from Par Avion could almost be taken as the poets credo;

Memory lapses into dream and dreams
are forgotten. The only reality is ink.

A Day At the Races brings to life the seedy world of a betting shop where on-screen
the ‘daft complex hats’ and ‘Lancome Smiles’ of ladies at a race day are juxtaposed against the foul-mouthed old man with ‘lonely teeth’ who is ‘itching for a drag of tar’.

In Soapsud Island, where the dirt of Kensington and Chelsea was once ‘imported’ for laundering, this industry has been erased by a present where a church can be ‘mistaken for a snooker hall’ . The poet longs to cleanse and mend the urban grime, to restore the sense of common purpose and identity which once existed amongst a long-lost community.

There are poems of universal emotion crafted with deftness and delicacy.
One can imagine poems such as the radiant ‘In Love’, ‘Kin’, and ‘Outside’, which is addressed to a child in utero, gracing anthologies such as Bloodaxe’s  ‘Staying Alive’.

Another dimension to this collection is provided by entertaining and wry poems  which address, among other subjects, the role of the actress in the classic version of King Kong who is told by the director in A History Of Screaming  ‘You’re’ helpless, Ann, helpless.’ This could be interpreted as a metaphor for the role of women within the film industry, perhaps the real monster that has devoured so many.

There is also the surprising and hilarious ‘Larkin’, a poem which evokes the horror of teaching poetry to schoolchildren and ends with a suitably Larkinesque twist.

In contrast to this humour and lightness of touch there are is the darkness of The Language of Slamming Doors,  a neatly written piece detailing how the anger and violence of a relationship have left physical scars upon a building.

In I Woke to Birth, the speaker travels though a strange, clinically brutal and seemingly inhumane landscape of medicalised labour and Cesarian delivery only for natural instinct to triumph through the mist of exhaustion and anesthesia in the resolution of the last line. ‘Asleep in an aquarium, I reached for their bodies’.

Credit is due to Nine Arches, who have produced a book where the quality of the design and layout reflects the content. Their products are surely amongst the most attractive in poetry publishing.

This collection is part of their ‘Debut’ series, which, as a first collection it technically is.
But in its assurance, maturity, coherence and bravery, ‘Melanchrini’ feels a long way from being a debut.  ‘Kin’ with its line ‘there was no second or third country’ and the final poem ‘Felling a Maiden’, provide some resolution to the complex questions of identity and belonging that run through the book. In these and other poems Maria Taylor shows us that wherever we come from, we must ultimately become and belong to ourselves, renewing and confirming our identities for and to ourselves.

The best way to spend £8.99 on poetry this year.

Melanchrini is published by Nine Arches Press, 2012.

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