An 'intensely visual, evocative' collection from TS Eliot Prize winner Sinéad Morrissey
Sinéad Morrissey’s new collection of poetry, Parallax, has just been awarded the TS Eliot Prize, the latest addition to the Belfast poet’s many accolades, which include the Patrick Kavanagh Award and the Irish Times/Poetry Now Award.
The TS Eliot Prize was set up by the Poetry Book Society in 1993 to recognise the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland each year. Both Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes are past recipients.
Morrissey also won the National Poetry Prize in 2007 for 'Through the Square Window', an eerie, evocative poem with descriptions of ‘the glutted look of clouds over water’ and a ‘shining exterior’ formed by panes of glass.
The writing in Parallax extends and expands on the concept of reflection, adding layers of meaning to everyday images and moments caught in time. Morrissey's overarching theme is the way in which things are not always what they seem – or rather, that things are often much more than they appear.
Intensely visual, Parallax was inspired in part by a collection of photographs that Morrissey came across in the archives of the Ulster Museum. As such, the poetry is peppered with place names and familiar references, gratifyingly so, as Morrissey was named Belfast’s first poet laureate just last year.
One poem, entitled 'Photographs of Belfast by Robert Hogg', begins with the stanza: ‘The year the Great Ship Herself / is fitted out / at the mouth of the Lagan’, and goes on to describe gymnasium horses and panelling of the vessel we assume to be Titanic, as well as the ‘fifty cubic tonnes / of soot’ which falls on the city in the year she is built.
Photographer Hogg and his process are described. Hoggs notices 'the stark potential / of tarnished water', which mixes with oil to form rivulets that 'coat the children's feet'. In this way, with Parallax, Morrissey does what many poets struggle to do, which is to poeticise the gritty and ordinary without sacrificing a taut, elegant expressive line.
There are also intensely personal poems in this collection. The five stanzas of 'Daughter' capture large and small themes of childhood: a child’s ability to resume a previous day’s little dramas after 12 hours of sleep, the particular smell of a child’s clothing or her ability to talk constantly, ‘like a businessman / on the last train home / after one too many espressos, / selling you his dream.’
The long poem 'A Matter of Life and Death' juxtaposes a 1946 film starring David Niven and Morrissey’s own experience of going into labour, not long after her grandmother’s death.
As much as anything, the poems in this collection show Morrissey’s fearless relationship to rhythm and form, as she negotiates both short and long poems with lines, often iambic, organised into short stanzas. One poem, 'Through the Eye of a Needle', is an example of concrete, or shape poetry, and it forms an hourglass or butterfly silhouette on the page.
This piece is also about a child, full of startling, spot-on imagery, such as a toddler’s dimpled fat, which ‘the stubby painted angels carry brightly’ and ‘eyes that loop the swallows up / on their traceable tethers / to harry them, upside-down, into / the huge room of her brain’.
Morrissey is also adept at introducing her readers to large themes and personalities, illuminating aspects of their existence in unique ways. A poem entitled 'Shostakovich', framed as a first-person narrative, ends with the couplet: ‘In all my praise and plainsong I wrote down / the sound of a man’s boots from behind the mountain’.
In 'Fools Gold', Morrissey imagines Prince Albert speaking to John Wright, a surgeon and inventor, in his electroplating workshop. Photographing Lowry’s House is an imagined monologue spoken by the Guardian photographer who took pictures of the interior of the painter’s house just after his death. The resulting stanzas capture both the presence and absence of the moment.
Parallax is a collection that rewards upon reading, and on re-reading too. The density of the language is tempered by a knack for finding startling but apt descriptions that rescue the poems from pretence. My personal favourite is a first-person meditation on the appearance of one’s own shadow on a railway station platform.
Again, Morrissey evokes ‘Late February sunlight’, this time with ‘winter’s filigree still inside it'. She goes on to muse about a dissident in Soviet Russia and a Victorian theatre performer, with her shadow ‘retracting back like drowning soap’, before leaving us with a reminder that ‘Shadows of candles on church walls at Evensong / manifest not as flame, but smoke'. This is evocative, elegant writing that lingers and teases, a prize-winning collection that rewards as much as it has been rewarded.
Parallax is out now, published by Carcanet Press Ltd.