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When Not To Listen

Gerard Smyth

Parallax, by Sinéad Morrissey, Carcanet Press, 86 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1847772046

Around the time of her first collection, the intriguingly titled There was Fire in Vancouver, the Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey acknowledged the example of RS Thomas. The Welsh poet, she wrote “inspires me because he is absolutely faithful to his own poetic concerns, regardless of a predominantly atheistic environment and changing literary fashions. He teaches that half the battle is knowing what not to listen to.” Which means of course that the other half of the battle is knowing not just what to listen to, but also where to look. In both instances Morrissey has the knack and it has served her well in the formation of her identity as a poet.

To look to such a daunting talent as Thomas was valuable. While her work owes no clear debt to him, the poems in that debut collection signalled her own adherence to a similar disregard for fashions and pretensions, and marked her as a poet of remarkable imaginative liberty who had already established a sure-footedness as well as perfect pitch in shaping a poem. While much of that collection centred on familial terrain and remembrance, there were refreshing twists of perspective, with historical and social references woven into the strategies of the collection.

That first book was a display of a style and texture that had already reached a high level of achievement; the consistency of imaginative energy throughout the thematic and technical variousness of subsequent collections point to a poet of enormous and deepening gifts. In each volume the devising of a strategy has been crucial, involving developing a theme, or set of themes, to stamp a sustained mood on the whole, as well as seeking new territory and making adjustments of frequency from volume to volume.

These keynote themes have been central to each of her five collections, with keynote poems built around those themes. In Between Here and There, she looked to a foreign landscape and its mores in the Japan poems, as well as her own responses to the “idea of Japan” ( that collection also contains one of her finest poems, “The Anatomy of a Smell”); in The State of the Prisons, she explored different forms of physical and psychological imprisonment, and in Through the Square Window, entered the realm of childhood, with the backdrop of her experiences of motherhood giving the poems a particular authority and authenticity.

Her poetry has in all its consistency been full of the world, the poet looking beyond her immediate environment but always returning to it; one senses an ongoing quest, one that animates the work and drives each collection.

Now in her fifth collection, the TS Eliot award-winner Parallax, Morrissey demonstrates a further development in her distinctive qualities, one of which indeed is a feature of Thomas’s work – the necessary reticence that a good poem requires.

As its title suggests, the preoccupation that weaves through this collection is the world as perceived through the lens; the lens not just as eye-witness but also as trickster; the evocative power of the image through the newsreel and how it records history. The potential of the subject suits the kind of close-focus imaginative detail with which her poems are richly endowed. Motherhood – or the mother as watcher of the child – comes into the frame again, echoing back to Square Window poems.

In Parallax, Morrissey also ventures into memory, what is preserved in sepia; here and there these are haunted verses, Morrissey steeping into the darkroom, the in-between shadow world of apparitions and vanishings, the world of those “in the unwakeable house”. The collection is studded with moments of firecracker imagery:

the suddenly tropical air / that feels dropped / from heaven …

The clocks went on consuming Saturday

Shadows of candles on church walls at Evensong
manifest not as flame, but smoke.

In Morrissey’s narrative poems – and these have a cinematic quality – her storytelling is impressive and seductive (“Jigsaw” and “Photographing Lowry’s House” are two among several). And yet the seduction leads to a profound moment, as in the touching glimpse of epiphany at the end of “Photographs of Belfast by Alexander James Hogg”, when the photographer snaps an image in which

each child strong enough
to manage it
carries a child.

The way in which she pushes the poem towards that concluding image is an impressive example of the element that perhaps defines Morrissey’s voice – its poise. In “Flu”, a poem in her preceding collection, she had told us that in the inertia of her sickness she had “slept or stared at A Century of Russian Photographs” and here, in the “The Doctors”, a fine poem about the falsifying ( or desecration, as she puts it ) of photos to suit revisions of history in Stalinist Russia and satisfy the capricious moods of a tyrant, she tells us that “With scissors / nail files, ink and sellotape, he has been vanished ...”; that he being the “one-whose-name-we-dare-not-whisper”.

One of the great delights of Morrissey’s poetry is the agility of language, the often startling surprises of her imagery, the sudden illuminations; in an exquisite poem on another Russian subject – the composer Shostakovich – she transmutes an ordinary scene into something wondrous through the power of poetic heightening:

Later I stood in a wheat field and heard the wind make music
from everything it touched. The top notes were the husks:
fractious but nervous, giddy, little-voiced,
while underneath a strong melody pulsed
as though the grain was rigging, or a forest.

Morrissey has cultivated an instinct for subject matter, and the transforming and scintillating way her imagination works with already familiar source material is what gives her re-workings and reinterpretations relevance and saves them from banality (some of the examples in Parallax include Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grassmere Journal, the BBC series The History of Art in Three Colours, the Powell-Pressburger 1946 fantasy film A Matter of Life and Death).

Her poem on the latter, one of the great classic movies of the 1940s, is a clever braiding of imagery from the drama of the film and the drama of the poet “going into labour”. What might seem incongruous or a forcing together of disparate elements works without interruption as an ongoing dialogue between scenes from the film and the advance towards birth. The poem, like many others here, is a real feat of inventiveness.

For all their “derived” subject matter, these poems are never superficial or conventional, nor do they recede into literary exercises, but quite often work as moving meditations, which is not to say they are without occasions of lightness too: “I don’t have girlfriends but I do have sex / with a different woman three times a month.” (Blog), and her Chandleresque riff in “The High Window”:

... So many crimes
unsolved you’d think those dressed-down cops
in their open-plan offices balanced books
on their heads all day or practised on the sly
for the Eurovision Song Contest.
(The Evil Key)

Morrissey’s playfulness is not Ashberyesque, an erroneous comparison made by her publisher in one book blurb; there is no whimsical nonsense in a Morrissey poem. The levity in a poem such as the one on turning forty (she was born in 1972 ) is kept finely balanced. She is a different kind of poet with greater emotional depth and nothing like the detachment you sense in Ashbery, in whose poems the private space remains private.

There is no shortage of good dramatic effect throughout the pages of Parallax:

At 25 and 29 respectively, Hans Holbein’s
burly furred ambassadors haven’t got long to go:
the pox, the plague, the ague, a splinter
in the finger, a scratch at the back of the throat
or an infection set into the shoulder joint
might carry them off, in a matter of writhing
hours, at any instant –

When she looks to the flesh and blood subjects close to home, especially those which give life to some of the best work, especially those poems in which she observes her children, she strikes some of her most explicit grace notes: in the lovely sequence, “Daughter”, as in other “family album” poems there are some fine moments of judicious perception.

She’s learning this house
like a psalm: the crack
in the kitchen sink,
the drawers and all
their warring contents,
the geography of each room
immutable as television.

Morissey’s use of domestic settings can be unsettling too in their darker tones ( in the poem “Baltimore”, for instance, “the constant freakish pitch of Westside Baltimore / on The Wire, its sirens and rapid gunfire .” intrudes and introduces a menacing note into a domestic setting which has at its heart the calm of “infant sleep”). The intensity as the images build shows the penetrating awareness of the poet. It is this penetrating awareness, along with her linguistic gifts and uncompromising rigour, as well as those keen instincts for the occasions of poetry, that make her such a good poet, but one who knows that the poem needs to stop at the point where “the only honesty is silence”.
24/02/2014

 Gerard Smyth is a poet, critic and journalist. His poetry has appeared widely in publications in Ireland, Britain and the United States, since the late 1960s, as well as in translation. His seventh collection, The Fullness of Time: New and Selected Poems ( Dedalus Press, Dublin ) was published in 2010 and last year was published in Italian translation. He is a member of Aosdána  and was the 2012 recipient of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award from the University of St Thomas in Minnesota. He is poetry editor of The Irish Times and co-editor, with Pat Boran, of If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song, which has been chosen as Dublin’s "One City One Book" for the month of April this year. 

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