#16: ‘Her French was wasted/in the north.’

First, I’m sorry that the update schedule recently has been less than regular – I’ve been travelling, and until the end of August I might not be able to post as often as usual. With that in mind, here’s a poem which also touches on travel. In Helen Mort’s ‘Miss Heath’, a literal state of being out-of-place sheds light on an emotional journey towards adulthood, refracted through a subject who would surely appreciate the poem’s impeccable poise.

Miss Heath

At seventy, our dance mistress
could still perform
a perfect pas des chats.

Her French was wasted
in the north. We stood in line
repeating parr-durr-shat

or sniggered
as she waited in the wings,
her right hand beating time

against her hip, her eyes
avoiding ours. She never
made the stage.

It took me twenty years
to understand. Alone tonight
and far from home

in shoes that pinch my toes
until they bleed, my back
held ballerina straight,

I wait as she did, too afraid
to walk into a bar
where everyone’s a stranger,

see her glide
across the city night
to meet me, tall and white

and slim. A step behind,
she clicks her fingers. Elegant,
she counts me in.

*

Between Mort’s pamphlet a pint for the ghost, and its forthcoming appearance in her debut book Division Street, ‘Miss Heath’ seems to have lost part of its title. I knew it as ‘a chaser for miss heath’, and that element of tribute, of raising a glass, is no less central to the poem. A chaser is, after all, a follow-up, which alters or complicates an initial flavour. It’s a palate-cleanser for initial bitterness. Similarly, Mort’s comments on Miss Heath’s ‘perfect’ abilities soon shift into a portrait of a sad and lonely figure, isolated from the crowd of younger girls who stand rigidly ‘in line’ before their old-fashioned ‘mistress’, flattening her sophistication into inadvertent scatology, leaving the strong taste which is necessary to set up the poem’s valedictory ending.

Much of the melancholy in these lines stems from their declarative simplicity: the bluntness of ‘or sniggered’ as an unruly rebuff to the time-keeper’s attempts to maintain control, the lesson concluding with a stark awareness that ‘She never/made the stage’. Just as Miss Heath’s eyes avoid her pupils’, the section of the poem set in the ballet class deliberately falls short of elegance – there are no metaphors, no adjectives, just mechanical verbs suggesting the preparations for a performance on which the curtain never goes up.

In fact, the lesson is never called a lesson, perhaps because, as Mort stresses, the learning happened so much later: ‘It took me twenty years/to understand.’ But more than half of the poem is given over to the growing recognition of Miss Heath’s importance, and the more Mort keeps the details vague (‘far from home’, explaining neither where nor why), the more her example takes on a totemic, transferable power. Wherever she is now, Mort’s speaker is the one who is ‘alone’, keeping her distance from a world of strangers. The toe-pinching shoes she wears have nothing to do with dancing; this self-inflicted pain is now an adult choice, not a child’s obligation. There’s no suggestion that this young girl has grown up to make the stage herself (except, perhaps, as a poet), and even the ‘ballerina’ posture she has retained is not itself enough to propel her confidently onward.

The beauty of the last two stanzas is in how the image, or the ghost, of the dance mistress arrives unbidden; twenty years on from their first awkward encounter, the figure who was once exiled to the wings takes on all the grace and fluency her tuition was supposed to represent. Her stately ‘glide’ is mirrored in the language, as the vowel-sounds (‘glide’, ‘night’, ‘white’, ‘behind’) synchronise for the first time in the text. Her physical poise (‘tall and white//and slim’) seems to transcend her age, and her position – ‘A step behind’ – is at once that of an outmoded straggler and an attentive mentor, gently gesturing forward. Within the world of the poem, it’s not too late to recognise her elegance, and Mort ends with a touching suggestion: Miss Heath’s persistence in her stranded situation was once ridiculous, but it has now, however belatedly, given her student the strength to begin.

*

Helen Mort won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition a frankly fearsome number of times, and was the youngest ever poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. She read at the winners’ event in my own first year as an FYP, and her first collection is coming out on Chatto & Windus. I once interviewed her for French radio about her role judging the Foyle’s competition, which you can hear here if you so desire.

scallop-shell

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