Annie Fisher reviews Skin & Blister by Blake Morrison (Mariscat, 2023)
The sonnet form can be a godsend to the non-religious poet. In life’s toughest times, when they would probably pray if they could, the sonnet’s neat, brief structure offers a chapel-like refuge where their poetry (whether traditional or nonconformist) can sing with a gravitas afforded by the form’s long history. This contained, prayer-like quality is perhaps why Blake Morrison turned to the sonnet when he wanted to pay tribute to his younger sister, Gillian, who died in 2019 of alcohol-related causes.
The pamphlet consists of a sestina and twenty sonnets. In a note at the end of the pamphlet, Morrison explains the collection’s title: “Skin & Blister – Cockney rhyming slang for sister – seemed a good title for the poems; our relationship was intimate but also painful. Much of the pain came towards the end, when Gill was affected by blindness and alcoholism – and pre-deceased me, which a younger sibling, or kid sister, isn’t supposed to do.”
The publication of Skin & Blister coincides with that of a full-length memoir,Two Sisters, which is also about Gillian and is the third in a series of family memoirs. Morrison’s widely acclaimed And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993) and Things My Mother Never Told Me (2002) already guarantee a wide readership for this third memoir, but because the audience for poetry is so much smaller, Skin & Blister is sure to get less publicity. This is a pity because it is a delicately written sequence, every bit as readable as the memoir, but quieter and more restrained. The poems are directly addressed to Gillian. They are for her, rather than about her. They listen for her voice, include her imagined words in response to the poems, and care about what she might think. What’s more, these are poems that readers who think they don’t like poetry might well enjoy. Morrison uses traditional forms, but with such a fluent, light touch, and such an easy tone, that one doesn’t consciously notice the poetic patterning.
The poems are directly addressed to Gillian. They are for her, rather than about her. They listen for her voice, include her imagined words in response to the poems, and care about what she might think
The pamphlet opens with a sestina built on the repeated words sister, blind, tense, past, drink, her. This gives us Gillian’s desperately sad story in overview. The closing envoi is blunt:
Because of drink she’s in the wrong tense.
I had a sister who was stoic and blind.
Now she’s past and I write poems for her.
(from ‘Sister / Sestina’)
The sestina is followed by twenty sonnets pondering the brother-sister relationship, recalling family events through photographs and objects, and asking why, after a shared childhood, their lives, played out so differently:
It’s a struggle to describe our rapport.
We weren’t close; we were never not close.
Rain harried the windows, marooning us
indoors, but how well did we know each other?
Late in the day I’ve a notebook and pen
and questions to put but you only resist
and clam up, like a suspect under arrest
who’s been coached to answer No comment.
(from ‘Sonnet 2’)
Reading these sonnets, I was reminded of Seamus Heaney’s sonnet sequence Clearances, written in memory of Heaney’s mother, and of how inequalities in education can distort communication between family members, creating a palpable awkwardness. This is from ‘Sonnet 4’ of Heaney’s Clearances:
Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
Morrison (who knew Heaney and has written about him) may well have had Clearances in mind when he wrote the Skin & Blister sonnets. Like Heaney’s mother, Gillian never achieved her potential, didn’t go to grammar school or university, and clearly saw herself as ‘hampered and inadequate’. In the Two Sisters memoir, Morrison admits to feeling guilt about this: “My sister’s death left me feeling neglectful”. Several of the poems try to bolster her self-esteem, although she seems to have been a hard person to bolster when she was alive and is beyond all bolstering now:
I’m looking for the source of
your sadly low opinion of yourself
which you only got the better of with booze.
You were five feet tall but massive nonetheless –
my Irish twin, grown in the same nursery,
stoical, needy, voiceless, noisy,
impossible to ignore or second-guess.
No, you weren’t the no-one you thought you were
(though it does no good to say it now you are).
(from ‘Sonnet 1’)
Heaney may also have influenced Skin and Blister’s ninth sonnet which begins:
The wind at Durness blows my heart to bits
as I think of our jaunt across Canada,
Mum, Dad, you, me and Kathy crammed in a
I’m hearing echoes of the last lines of Heaney’s poem ‘Postscript’:
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The echoes may or may not be intentional. Morrison’s poems are certainly not trying to impress with allusions or anything overtly ‘poetic’. There’s an intimate, everyday voice throughout and although the poems mostly follow the structure of an Italian sonnet, you don’t notice the technique at work. Apart from the odd choice of niche to rhyme with speech in one poem, the half-rhymes and gently chiming words Morrison chooses seemed totally natural to me.
Skin & Blister gives us the best of Gillian as well as her pain
I have been reading Two Sisters alongside Skin & Blister. It’s a compelling read, cleverly structured to include passages about famous brothers and sisters in classic fiction and in history. Morrison doesn’t flinch from the dark, the difficult and the messy in any of his writing, and his honest, intimate style encourages the reader to empathise and look for comparisons to their own family – at least, that’s what I found myself doing.
Skin & Blister gives us the best of Gillian as well as her pain – two sisters in fact. We learn about the music she enjoyed and her love for her children as well as her bleak moments of drunken isolation. Here she is as a young child in a poem that could be a snapshot of any happy fifties childhood:
Your buttoned sandals and striped party dress.
Your photo of a tutu-d, svelte Fonteyne.
The treadle of your Singer sewing machine
when you dreamt of becoming a seamstress.
(from ‘Sonnet 5’)
And here we see her as a teenager:
In this photo from my twenty first we look
to be flirting. You’re in a low-cut dress –
sleeveless, sparkly, silver-grey – and your eyes
are wide as if we’re sharing a joke
or a piece of gossip.
(from ‘Sonnet 8’)
Is this Gillian as she’d like to be remembered? Who knows? You’re likely to see the Two Sisters memoir if you go into any bookshop now. It’s well worth reading in my opinion. But seek out the Skin & Blister poems too and read these kind and tender elegies to a sister who was loved, and whose full complexity, as Blake Morrison would be the first to admit, nobody will ever understand.
Annie Fisher lives in Somerset and is a member of The Fire River Poets. She has had two pamphlets published by HappenStance Press: Infinite In All Perfections (2016) and The Deal (2020).