Instructions for Making Me, Maria Taylor
HappenStance Press, 2016 £5.00
Seen precisely through a haze
This collection of poetry does something that very much appeals to me – it manages to feel, at the same time, both intimate and indefinite. ‘I knew him for years. I recognised him by the dust motes’ (‘The Invisible Man’). It is as if we’re being allowed a glimpse into something both personal and deeply felt, but we’re seeing through a filter or, in this case, a ‘haze’ perhaps.
It seemed to me that this authenticity mixed in with inexplicitness meant that, as a reader, while I did feel what you could describe as a ‘connection’ to the poet (or her persona), this wasn’t because it was just as if the text was biographical; I found I was also bringing my own experiences to the poems. At times, it’s uncertain whether the poet is addressing her reader, or addressing herself – ‘one says, she’s only a girl / and you’re walking / and you just keep walking’ (The Vale).
This is furthered by the references to pop culture throughout – ‘I don’t even like Daniel Craig’ ('Hypothetical'); ‘they’re the vanishing people in Marty McFly’s photograph’ (‘Speakers of Half-Finished Sentences’); ‘next was Jenny Monaghan / the talented one who knew / how to Lindy-Hop and did so / on Blue Peter’ (‘Jenny’). These are scattered amongst sharp, atmospheric lines to ground the work, and give the reader a sense of time and place − her own time and place: not just the poet's.
Writing about what isn’t
Maria Taylor has this fantastic knack for writing about something vividly by writing about what it’s not. The result is an exploration of humour and imagination – with a palpable sense of why we might need these things.
The first poem is about a neighbour mowing his lawn ‘but for a moment’. The second is titled ‘Not About Hollywood’ and most decidedly isn’t about Hollywood – although it may go some way to explaining why we have magazines in waiting rooms. ‘He talks. We listen to the silences’ is also a line that confirms it can be what’s not said that counts.
‘Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood’ reads ‘I am fascinated by bunk beds, head lice and cupcakes’ – perfectly satirising the smarting gap between real life and how we think we should be. ‘The school-run is my red carpet’ seems brilliant. And ‘The Horse’ too is a poem that offers great humour around a serious subject by extending its metaphor – opening gateways to imaginative fancy (‘She pours strong coffee, rests her hooves on the table’ is my favourite image).
‘Hypothetical’ is about not sleeping with Daniel Craig. It’s very funny – ‘Daniel Craig is naked in a hypothetical sense, / telling me we can make this work’. But these poems are also sad and touching. Not least, ‘My Stranger’, a poem about a dad who wasn’t. Even here there’s wry humour, painting pictures of what didn’t happen:
He taught my brother harpsichord
and now he’s international (you may
have heard him on the radio).
One image from ‘Speakers of Half-Finished Sentences’, for me, captures something of the fragile balance these poems strike – between what is there, and the missing and much-missed acres of what is not:
On office phones they say I love you, as they gaze
through tall windows and see everything that isn’t there.
A Distinctive Voice
It is undeniable that Maria Taylor writes with style, but I found the style in question difficult to define. Her collection, aptly named Instructions for Making Me, promises a distinctive voice – an intriguing blend of thoughtfulness and quirky humour – in addition to a tone which successfully blends the surreal and the mundane.
As the poet writes, she evokes several emotions at once. In ‘The Horse’ she cleverly weaves the cliché ‘getting back onto the horse’ into something more realistic, more modern; while in ‘Hypothetical’ the main speaker is propelled from an amusing, what-if, conversational frolic into a dramatic and emotional divorce rooted in an almost out-of-body experience.
Maria Taylor’s poems, therefore, are not easily categorised. Perhaps they can be best described as moments which range from fact to fiction, and those which fall directly in between. Of these moments, here are a few of which particularly engaged me:
His simple question skims the roofs
of expanding towns.
[‘Travelling on the 10:21 with Tom Hardy’]
Afternoons you saunter home
from school under skies
coloured like pencil-nibs.
Morning. Drizzle. Horse laughs.
I am a joke on a social networks.
His long toes skim the leaves.
[‘The Invisible Man’]
There are many moments such as these scattered throughout Taylor’s work, all prompting different images and questions – endless questions. For example, who is the invisible man on the swing? How exactly does one ‘lick motherhood’? Or (somewhat infuriatingly) how do the sentences end in ‘Speakers of Half-finished Sentences’? After reading the collection several times, I am still uncertain. However, this surreal uncertainty is what makes Taylor’s work so appealing to read and, for me, to read repeatedly.