Black Shiver Moss

Graham Mort
Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 29, 2017
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'Black Shiver Moss is a collection where place and time come together, memorably fresh and alive.​' - The North

‘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 D A Prince, The North

Monday, August 5, 2019

Black Shiver Moss is Graham Mort’s tenth poetry collection. Easy enough for me to write that, and for you to skip ahead, but stop for a moment: ten collections. How many poems? How many drafts discarded along the way? How many poets with the creative energy to get anywhere near that number? This collection sparkles with fresh imagery, with what Philip Gross has called ‘the sheer intensity of observation’ in poems driven by linguistic word-play and musical half-rhymes. It’s a testament to Mort’s commitment to make his poems renew and make visible the natural world he records so precisely.

At one level these are all poems of record – waking up to birdsong in Picardy, feeding the village pig, walking (or cycling) in Cumbria, watching steeplejacks, a Cape Town garden – and a sense of the uniqueness of the day, with its light, sounds, smells, vibrant colours. ‘Waking in Picardy’ offers us the aural details of ‘… the sputter of rooks over / orchards …’, ‘A / blackbird’s cadenza …’, and house martins stuttering (a nice echo of the earlier ‘sputter’), while the eye picks out the ‘flaked black grief’ of the rooks, a sky of ‘apricot grey’, and ‘… the pond’s virulent acne / of weed …’ All this sensory experience, rising out of ‘… lost, intangible / sleep …’. is immediate and pulsing with energy. Another example, from ‘Diablo’, towards the end of the collection –


Sky is a white crucible fired to ceramic blue.

    I turn to watch martins scour it, a herring

        gull balance on pantiles, mocking the sea


where it kneels over and over, a grey widow

    worshipping cold stones, waves scattering,

        small boats fitful at anchor, hard weather


to come. A church bell quarters the hours


We can see it, hear it, know there will be ‘Salt stinging on shingle’s tongue’. Every poem shows Mort’s urge to catch the moment and the world before it vanishes.

But there is another level within these poems, one which emerges more gradually: human frailty, mortality and the working-out of time. In ‘Waking in Picardy’ it appears in the final stanza, after the variousness of birdsong and the specifics of morning light as ‘…a / ripening day’s vast dream where / the dead still reach for us.’ Picardy, the site of so many war graves; it’s historical, perhaps a personal connection but not obviously so, yet. But mortality slides through the poems, breaking the surface – briefly at first – then with a more dominant note. In ‘Abed’ it opens the poem – ‘When that oak bed arrived / I knew I’d die in it …’ followed by the personal detail ‘… touching my chest / where surgeons put my heart / back – a golden fish gasping / in its raiment of blood …’ It’s not foregrounded as a theme and the tangible richness of the real world is the starting point for almost every poem but death increases its presence. ‘Bisoprolol Fumarate’, an uncharacteristically short poem, describes the small white pills that tame his pulse and in which ‘I climb this long, green hill / to life’; it echoes the many poems of hill walking and the physically-active world. ‘Bypass’, on the facing page, gives us the detail of a cycle ride – the valley, mist, three palomino foals, cattle, ‘the day / raw with diesel and dung from the milking sheds’ – and not until the end is the title explained: ‘… I’m cycling // home to show you that I’m still alive: / a breathless revenant, not six years dead.’

It’s in ‘Diablo’, quoted above, that the two themes are brought face to face and Mort’s commitment to translating the living world into words is confronted: ‘… making me remember all this / going on when I’m rendered back to dust, // sifting in a funeral plume […] Pages / of my life curling, their meaning blackening, / emptied of my own self …’ His poems are survivors, flung in the face of death, giving us the freshness in what is so often, for him, the ‘ordinary’ world of Cumbria or South Africa or Spain. He gives as much attention to the ‘Garlic mustard in flower – / tiny white starbursts …’ in ‘Ordinary’, the loosely-associative poem about his father, a fence, Friesian heifers, rain, and ‘the way all / miracles are mundane’ as he does to the dramatic geography of Table Mountain. Black Shiver Moss is a collection where place and time come together, memorably fresh and alive.

Review by Steve Whitaker, The Yorkshire Times

Friday, January 19, 2018

'Black Shiver Moss' is a far from prosaic title for a volume of poetry.

As an indicator of mood, it could be a well-placed fictional construct, designed to introduce a sense of foreboding.

But it is actually a proper noun; a real place, high up on a plateau below the Yorkshire Dales peak of Ingleborough, and concealing the subterranean maw of 'Black Shiver Pot' beneath a porous bedrock of limestone.

And it can be bleak, particularly in winter.

Not that Graham Mort's latest collection is unremittingly bleak. There is a fecundity to the poems which almost overwhelms the senses; enough physical, floral and animal drama to call the tableau intransigent, were the rhythms of Mort's style not so seductively comforting.

The ebbing and flowing of lines induce a sense of enjambment even where full stops punctuate the thought train. A blackbird's 'cadenza' in the opening poem, 'Waking in Picardy' is a precise figure not only for the free-form rhythm of the bird's dance, but for the poem's insouciant vigour.

And movement: the poem conjures an affirmation of endurance, growth and survival through the ongoing movement of words.

The text proceeds, in places, at a train's pace of observation, pausing for breath only at wheezy junctures of metrical change or reversal.

There is a febrile beauty in some of the images Mort collects on the way: 'damselflies glisten, sex to sex / promiscuously winged'. And all of the exacerbated wilfulness of nature's surplus emergent in that state of semi-awareness which precedes awakening ('Waking in Picardy').

The extended metaphor Mort uses, in this poem, to describe the imagination's 'waiting' for full consciousness, is submarine, and is redolent of the anthropomorphism of Ted Hughes: 'pike sunk into green, camouflaged / in striped, eternal patience; / their sag-belly grins hatch under / clouded water, below the bloomed / skin of wakefulness'.

And again, in 'Froglet', a tiny animal becomes a silent titan of the underworld, watching and waiting: 'a dwarf god growing / into lordship of its world, / peering at thunder clouds'.

There is anthropomorphism, too, in Mort's frequent use of the fire motif.

Accompanying his journey of memory through the UK, France and contemporary South Africa where the poet has lived and worked, fire directs, describes, and sometimes distils economy and simplicity from inventories of loose threads.

In the incandescent 'An Old Flame', fire roars across borders and time in a relentless inscribing of metaphors, which, as the psychoanalyst-philosopher Gaston Bachelard found, are the primordial building blocks of fire's linguistic serviceability.

The power to destroy and create, wrapped in the Promethean gift of flame, encompasses 'a torchlit carnival, a feast of flyblown wedding meat' as easily as embodying the promiscuity of hate in 'tyre necklaces'.

In this brilliantly effective poem Mort explores the kinds of binary opposition which are integral to Tony Harrison's entire oeuvre, and like Harrison, he seeks resolution in fire's paradoxical power to clarify. He finds it in the power of apostolic tongues of fire - progenitors, in Harrison's words, of 'glossolalia and dulciloquy' - now 'rising' to ignite 'a new language' from an irony of 'breech and muzzle'.

There is a powerful suggestion, especially here but also in the fine poem 'Diablo', of Louis MacNeice's seminal 'Brother Fire'. The relishing of the language of fire for its own sake - it's power to move with alacrity, to consume and overtake like a wild and feral animal - is almost overwhelming.

Another extended fire metaphor, 'Diablo', re-doubles Mort's mandate. The poem concludes in a cremation of the imagination where the poet's work, his language, is burnished for posterity, and incandescent words are given reinvigorated meaning.

Mort's characteristic, and astonishingly acute, use of the verb form infuses mood and tone into narratives of existential confusion and anxiety. The austerity of the South African townships and the harsh, unremitting heat of the landscapes in which they endure, are places where sounds 'cauterize' and time 'exfoliates' ('Last Day in Orbs'), and where a politics of questionable success might be described in a metonymy of newly burned, ashy plains, as viewed from an aeroplane.

Elsewhere, that dark before dawn when the mind is at its lowest ebb is 'assassinating' to the spirit, where thought of loved ones is the consolation of 'kindling' ('Saving Daylight').

Some of the poet's own preoccupations - spectral presences just out of reach, the dead calling back to the living - create moments of elegy in a narrative of uncertainty.

'Spectre' occupies a liminal space between past and present where the narrator addresses the synaesthesias of 'your future life' as though to underwrite a desperate need for continuity, whilst 'La Maison Bleue' recalls the past from the perspective of a revenant apostrophising the present in order to restore lost memory.

It seems clear that intimations of personal mortality shape the direction of several of the poems. 'Bypass', with its easy innuendo, is a profoundly disconcerting, and finally moving poem, which follows another 'revenant' on a drive home to announce his continued existence to a wife who knows he is six years dead. 'Bisoprolol Fumarate', also the name of a form of heart medication, precedes 'Bypass', and yields an illustration of fragility and finitude in a frighteningly claustrophobic metaphor: the heartbeat 'that faint ka-boom / of hatches clanging on a sunken hull, / doors closing in a darkening room'.

Graham Mort's closely observed and beautifully wrought incantation works by gradual accretion on the receptive mind. Aided persuasively by a choice of poetic forms which induce a kind of reader narcosis, the poet is sometimes able to render topographical and cultural differentials subordinate to the sound of the words which describe them.

This is not to suggest that the toponyms of the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Spain, South Africa and Italy are without unique identification. Mort's aerial sense of geographical liberation does not dissolve boundaries of detail or immensities of experience; rather does it release meaning where it is most necessary.

The simple, harrowing architectural dislocations of the Italian town of 'Amatrice' after the earthquake yield, in the end, a deeply moving, and unspoken, gesture of love - a respecter of no borders:

'Amatrice, they said,
bearing witness, their blue jackets torn at the
sleeves. Amatrice: its leaves shivering,
their palms unreadable, lying still in ours'.


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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