On Balance by Sinéad Morrissey
Paperback, ISBN: 978 1 784103 60 6 Carcanet Poetry May 2017
This is the Poetry Book Society choice for Summer 2017 and Sinéad Morrissey writes in the Summer Bulletin that “Gravity started it, or rather things which defy its force: acrobats, carrier pigeons, aeroplanes. Earth defying structures, constructed out of our cleverness. Whatever stays up when it shouldn’t, making us gasp.”
This leads into various avenues.
Morrissey opens with the launch of the Titanic, in the opening poem The Millihelen , (a fanciful measurement of the amount of beauty it takes to launch a ship), where “the ship sits back in the sea/as though it were ordinary…regains its equilibrium” but only for now.
In the title poem, On Balance, she goes on to Philip Larkin’s Born Yesterday and his misogynistic “May you be ordinary…In fact, may you be dull”. Where women are “girls” and she berates the poet: “You were the mean fairy/at the christening, /feigning honesty.” She tells Larkin that he would never have been allowed to approach her own magnificent daughter, so far from dullness “as shadows on the landscape after staring at the sun.”
Her poetry is a mixture of close observation and intelligent analysis. Nativity has the children “so cleanly/…lifted from their context” away from their parents, even if there is a fear that the children will “unhook themselves/from the strings of their teachers’ attention….(and) “scatter like birds off a lake.” When she was five, the poet witnessed a near drowning, and in At the Balancing Lakes we have a child’s vision of cuckoos and sandwiches, and the way “her fine blonde hair/keeps surfacing like pondweed”, and “losses so far:/the tank of my brother’s frogspawn…our neighbour driven off/ in an ambulance who/ never came back; my skipping-/rope..”
She also has a particular gift for narrative voices. The Collier documents a lifetime in the darkness, and My Life According to You is a clever retort. She recreates My Seventeenth-Century Girlhood when after marriage at 14 “The days had no more avenues/to read or wander in” once Mr Thomas Davers came calling, summed up in “His hat. His manners.”
She uses the documentary Expedition to the End of the World, in Whitelessness, where professionals, balancing on the edge, exploring a landscape only accessible because of global warning, each describe their environment through their own specialist language; through its rocks in The Geologist, “this one/contains the ridges of human teeth”; in The Photographer with his signs, the “ox skull….looks like a crime scene”, and his glacier colours of “desert turquoise”; with The Geographer in the unexplored as yet unnamed valley; The Artist who “did not pack colours” for the grey and black landscape, and white animals which become “spaces on the paper where their bodies were/last time I glanced up.”; The Marine Biologist, with the “previously inaccessible ballet-/dancers” in the Petri dishes; and lastly, The Archaeologist who can recreate a Paleo-Eskimo village from “a single nick on a flint.”
All in all, this is a fine collection and it successfully connects the personal to the challenges facing society including environmental and gender issues, and to the iconic, like the Titanic, the female flying legend Lilian Bland, and Napoleon’s skeletal horse. Like her circus performers, who reappear throughout the book, she has achieved her own balancing act.