Black Shiver Moss

Graham Mort
Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 29, 2017
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‘A book of great energy’ – Katherine Stansfield

‘Mort, with his startling exactitude and shrewd observation, leaves us “spellbound in stanzas”. Highly recommended.’ – WriteOutLoud

Graham Mort writes beautifully about North Yorkshire, but the poems in his tenth collection, Black Shiver Moss, include pieces about landscapes and peoples as distant as South Africa and as close as Europe. New places are made intimate and familiar by Mort’s vivid descriptions and evocations. Here is a traveller who has taken his destinations to heart,
reproducing their weathers and textures with a startling exactitude and intensity. When he writes of his northern home counties, particularly in the long poem, ‘Aphasia’, the tone is full of warmth and a kind of yearning, not just for a personal past but for historical human movement – those who migrated over centuries to farm and mine and work the cotton belt factories, bringing their languages with them. Here is a poet of deep feeling who eschews sentimentality for shrewd observation. His muscular language has a Heaney-esque deftness and heft, yet reaches beyond the physical to register the frailty and brevity of human existence.

A poet who loves nature, particularly in the liminal states of dawn and dusk, Mort move us beyond the visible, towards spiritual and philosophical concerns. His animals are common livestock: cows in muddy, frost-struck fields, spotted woodpeckers, earthworms, swallows, ‘rising on wing-flickers’, and a marvellously otiose pig called ‘Winston’. Mort, like Hardy, is a laureate of all weathers, vividly describing the fells’ ‘cheesecloth mists’, rain ‘that hissed like steak or fish in the skillet’, the ‘haze of dust and heat-wavering roads’ of South Africa.

We are also introduced to the occasional human character, like the pigeon keeper who we meet as he ‘walks through a cloud of blue moths – one for each apostle’. The figure of the walker, migrant or traveller, the human who moves through the landscape and both rejoices and suffers from what he discovers, is central to Mort’s poetic project.

What impresses in Black Shiver Moss is how Graham Mort manages to create and sustain a darkly magnificent tone, reminiscent of Beethoven’s late quartets, of Shakespeare’s tragedies, of classical landscape painting, a tone suffused with seriousness and mortality. It is an audacious risk and the resulting triumph is one that the author has earned through rigorous technique steadily applied to a native gift over many years. Discriminating readers will be delighted.




Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Graham Mort was born in Lancashire and studied English at Liverpool University. After training to be a teacher, he taught in schools, colleges, prisons, special education and psychiatric units before becoming a freelance writer. He gained a doctorate from the University of Glamorgan and is now professor of creative writing and transcultural literature at Lancaster University. He is the author of nine previous collections of poetry, two prize-winning collections of short stories, radio dramas and educational course books.

Reading the poems in Black Shiver Moss it quickly becomes apparent that one is in the hands of a skilled practitioner, someone who has honed and perfected his craft over the years and is comfortable with it. The poems, which are predominantly of a pastoral nature, are full of intricate detail which is sharply observed and beautifully conveyed to the reader. His poems are populated more by animals than humans – by palomino foals, cows, pigs, cock pheasants and rough fell sheep – so that when a human does appear, as in ‘Girl at Cam Fell’ it almost comes as a surprise because of the intensity of the solitude that surrounds his work.

Mort is a poet who is familiar with the dawn. He rises early and captures its serenity in his lines. He is good on atmospherics, one of his strong points is his ability to conjure a landscape within a single line. His vocabulary is wide and he has a penchant for dropping unusual words into a sentence when least expected. In ‘Brambles’ he writes about “swinging a gravid / carrier bag at the gate  where Limousins / thud the field … ”, and later, “[of] wet snow blowing from the yard / to the log pile, the vegetable beds, the pond’s / cataleptic stare.”

The opening lines of ‘Fado’ give another instance of his tantalising use of vocabulary: “I love the sound of Fado: / the way melisma makes old-style / calligraphies of air …”

The themes are familiar ones: a household waking at dawn, holidays abroad, the weather and what it does to landscape, berry-picking, fell-walking, listening to music, changing the clocks, but they are written about in a way that never fails to engage our attention and, crucially, are about more than the landscapes they inhabit.  Many assume a reflective, even philosophical, stance with references to specific points in history.

The tone is not always that of serious wonderment. There is humour here too, as evidenced in the poem ‘Dogs’ where Mort considers the possibilities of dogs with “super-sensile ears” feeling “the aura of a poem coming near”.

The poems are not all confined to one place. There are references to South Africa, in particular, the fynbos of the Western Cape, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France as well as, closer to home, the “debatable lands” of Cumbria, the fells of the Lake District and the high moors of the north of England. Mort’s interest in Africa in a number of his poems ties in with his academic research on emergent African writing, the training of African writers and the promotion of their work.

In this collection Mort, with his startling exactitude and shrewd observation, leaves us “spellbound in stanzas”. Highly recommended.

Review by Katherine Stansfield, Gwales

Monday, September 11, 2017

Like much of Graham Mort’s previous work, the new poems in Black Shiver Moss travel: across the world, through history, through landscapes. A number are prominently rooted in South Africa while others roam through the north of England and Europe. It’s a book of great energy, not least due to the use of form. Poems are rarely shorter than a page and use long sentences broken across lines to carry their ideas. Add to this a preponderance of verbs ending in ‘-ing’; and you’ve got a collection always on the go. An example is ‘An Old Flame’: a single sentence that runs over thirty lines exploring the way fire grows, consumes, dancing between literal and figurative states. Many poems feature water: heavy rain, rivers in spate:

‘streams unchoke, foaming after that
last drench of rain, their other language
clamouring.’ (‘Stella Rossa’)

As water courses, so do the poems, pouring down the page. But this movement doesn’t prevent the poetic eye from stopping to observe, keenly, the world around us, as seen in some wonderfully sharp images. Here are a few of my favourites: the titular ‘Earthworm’ is ‘an inner-tube/of blood and shit’; spring’s ‘garlic stink’ (‘Rain at Franschoek’); after black-berrying, ‘Our hands are gangland/killer’s mitts’(‘Brambles’); and quarrelling blackbirds are ‘cocksure duellists in tight frock//coats’ (‘A Rising’).

Some poems lack a discernible viewpoint or narrator, seeming deeply rooted in the landscape they’re describing, but in others an ‘I’ provides a focal point, and I had a strong sense of a couple’s experiences but not in a way that excludes a reader. Unease runs through quite a few poems, the feeling that life is on a knife edge. Reading ‘Steeplejacks’ I held my breath, certain disaster loomed for the two souls who climb a church spire with ‘wind tugging, hearts/hammering’. During shrub-burning in South Africa, caution is ignored: ‘a guy in winkle pickers went past/teetering on a sloping stone with a camera as his family/watched. One slip, we said, but they just laughed’. (‘Fire Management’)

Such near misses become more personal in poems concerned with illness and recovery. ‘Veldtschoen’ is a fantastic poem that begins by exploring the history of well-loved boots but shifts to a revelation about a heart bypass, using the hinge of a comparison between tightly-laced boots and ‘thoracic scars’. A later poem, ‘Bypass’, has a speaker haunted by their closeness to death:

‘I’m cycling
home to show you that I’m still alive:
a breathless revenant, not six years dead.’

Such darkness is lightened by the collection’s many poems about the redemptive power of animals, birds and insects: all the living joy of the natural world. The ordering of poems is very well considered, moving between light and shade, humour and tragedy, and, in some ways, saving the best for last.

The collection ends with ‘Aphasia’, a richly meditative sequence that explores the history of lives lived along the River Swale in Yorkshire, and the industries supported by the river: ‘cotton towns’ chanting ‘litanies of servitude’, a rubber mill ‘of hot intractable machines’, chemical works, lead mines. People leave, history becomes nostalgia, and de-industrialisation hollows out a place to be reclaimed by nature. Through the long
story of this community an ‘I’ leaves and returns, over-laying personal experiences and digging down into the language of place. Old grave stones do for paving now: ‘the means of//remembrance forgetting itself’. But in charting forgetting, these poems keep memory alive.


A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

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