I first read this pamphlet in 2017, not long after it came out, and I’ve returned to it several times since, much because it seems to me a model of how a pamphlet can be an intensely pleasurable reading experience without having to be wholly or mainly dominated by one thematic concern. It contains 25 compact poems (only one of which spills, and even then only just, onto a second page), and gives a really good flavour of Julie Mellor’s range and ability. Let’s face it, the average full collection from some big publishers often barely gets past 30 poems these days, so this pamphlet provides true value for money as well as excellent poetic fare.
It starts with a poem – ‘The Scar on my Wrist’ – that tells the presumably autobiographical story of dicing with death as a late-teen or early-20-something in a car crash, and how at that age one has minimal sense of mortality and can laugh such incidents off:
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies
taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night, quoting Talking Heads,
this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around, me with my arm in plaster,
flirting with the fireball from a box of matches,
a pub trick that set my face alight.
The naively arrogant spirit of youth, of feeling indestructible and taking on the world (‘Life During Wartime’ indeed) comes across so vividly here, enhanced by the collectivism of that repeated “ourselves”. The pacing of the writing is urgent and exciting. It’s not easy to tell a story in a poem, especially one so personal, and knowing what information to include and what to omit can be almost as difficult as choosing the right words; clearly, though, Mellor has the gift to do so beautifully.
‘Penitential’ also touches on the spirit of youth, but is also typical of Mellor’s ability to describe with lyrical precision, in this case a pedestrian journey through Sheffield city centre, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary for being captured in words:
Walking barefoot to Paradise Square,
I pass the gym where Japanese students
work their bodies to perfection.
There is no weather, just heat.
I like that neat internal rhyme-of-sorts between “Paradise” and “Japanese” and I like the matter-of-factness of the depiction. The poem goes on towards a curious ending in Paradise Square, to which the narrator of the poem is compelled to go, in order
to look up at those Regency windows
where solicitors in white silk shirts
are working late and receive
the blessing of their immaculate advice.
It’s a strange and somehow unsettling scene; rendered stranger still, perhaps, by the unfortunate absence of a comma after “late”, without which the syntax could read as though it is the solicitors who are receiving the advice rather than the narrator. The economy of the wording – as throughout Mellor’s poetry – is exact and sounds pitch-perfect on the ear.
In fact, there are surprise endings in a number of Mellor’s poems, no more so than ‘Wasps’, which has an appropriately nasty sting in its tail. If writing about bees became de rigeur five to 10 years ago, then this is a waspy antidote that deserves to be anthologised as among the best poems about these much-maligned insects you could ever hope to read, with acute observation running all the way through it:
The air’s turning damp;
one hard frost might claim them.
But they blaze against death,
bodies brittle as sweet wrappers,
the inked nibs of their stings
This is impressively taut writing; the simile and metaphor both spot-on. As ever, Mellor’s line-breaks too are just right, emphasising the words at the end and beginning of lines. I won’t reveal the ending of the poem, but suffice it to say that it takes the poem to a wholly unexpected, horrific place which is, nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the poem. Cleverly, that sting is delivered in an off-rhymed couplet at odds with the tercets that have preceded it.
There are many very satisfying poems in the book: ‘To Say We Exist’ turns nicely from imagining the coming-up-for-air experiences of miners and divers to a comparison with memories of childhood when the narrator “stayed in a strange bed/ troubled by the ornaments of other people’s lives, the shape of the dressing gown// hung behind the door”. Mellor successfully captures here, I think the disorientation of being in any unfamiliar bed and how, as a child’s experience, it could induce considerable anxiety. The poem doesn’t explain why the child was not in their own bed and the question hangs over the ending. The neat form of the poem, in four quatrains, is reinforced by its circularity, in that its final image is of the child counting “coal trucks”. Mellor isn’t a formal formalist, as it were, but seems instinctively to have the knack of letting her poems find a form which suits them.
‘Here’ – its title instantly reminiscent of Larkin’s bare Lincolnshire-landscape, quasi-mystical poem of the same name, which opens The Whitsun Weddings – similarly conjures up a Northern English landscape “at the rim of the world”, a place where memories of the past are ingrained: “the road/ where my father won the slow bike race/ in 1953, where our uncles had biblical names,// Nicodemus, Diadorous, and our aunt was unrelated/ an evacuee who never went home”. This to me is writing which presents life with an attractive, unalloyed clear-sightedness. The title-poem, with its prayer “for those/ who dash with trolleys across Tesco’s/ miraculous car park, shimmering, soaked” is in the same vein; as is ‘Clog Field’, which describes a hinterland view towards the city centre from across south-west Sheffield, including “allotments with their umpteen front doors” and a “small acre/ where the city’s horses used to graze”. The drawing-on of memory within these poems is chocker with marvellous detail, but never verges into the sentimental, as though Mellor is too much of a realist to hark back with any excessive fondness, and in any case provides in such recollections an innate sense of timelessness.
There are so many poems which I would love to quote in full, among them ‘Divining’, which tells of a water-diviner
somewhere out in the stubble,
trousers tucked into the tops of his boots,
arms bent as if to steady a horse or fire a gun,
pointing instead the length of brass he communes with.
‘Grace Notes’ is another ‘edgelands’ poem, this time set at Morecambe Bay, and hints implicitly, through just one word (“Tides”), at the fate of the 21 Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned there in 2004, and moves to an epiphany of “black swans [. . .] overhead, grace notes/ drifting from the hinges of their wings”. The brilliance of this image is perhaps slightly diluted by using “grace notes” as the title of the poem, but is nonetheless beautiful and makes me want to read more such excellent observation from nature by Mellor.
Since the publication of this pamphlet, Mellor has headed in a more experimental direction, through the use of redaction of found textual matter to create powerful, committed poetry which works as much through what it redacts as what it leaves for the reader, as a good look at her tremendous blog shows. Her voice deserves to be heralded as distinctive and fine.
I could go on to detail lots of other treasures to be found within Out of the Weather, but I’ll leave it there with a recommendation that buying it would be a very shrewd and rewarding move indeed.
Julie Mellor, Out of the Weather, Smith|Doorstop, £5