Tightrope Songs – review of Sinéad Morrissey, Michael Symmons Roberts, JL Williams
The Poetry Review, winter 2017
Sinéad Morrissey’s exhilarating new collection, On Balance, is inspired by things that defy gravity – trapeze artists, feats of engineering, flight. The book encompasses carrier pigeons, aeroplanes and acrobats. What is so gratifying about the volume is just how many of the poems achieve lift-off. Again and again the work delivers a shock of actuality, for it hits you, when a poem attains optimal life. This sixth collection follows Parallax which won Morrissey the T S Eliot award in 2014. Reading On Balance, you sense a poet supremely liberated, pushing forward in a style that is ever more distinctively her own.
It’s Morrissey’s innovations with form, her sensitivity to linebreak and white space, that secure the dynamic nature of the work. Form is tested against content, content against form until, as in all the best poems, form is content, there is no division between the two. ‘My Life According to You,’ for example, all breathless gallop and pithy reversal, which recounts a mother’s life from a child’s perspective, makes use of a skewed line drop to gather voice and move the action forward. The outstanding long poem, ‘Collier’, about the poet’s miner grandfather and her grandmother, closes each stanza with words which generate the first line of the following verse. Propulsive, compelling, melding narrative and lyric, Morrissey’s poetry combines deep feeling with a probing, philosophical intelligence.
Morrissey’s interests are substantial and diverse. They include history, ecology, family and feminism. ‘The Mayfly’, its light, stepped stanzas washed across four pages, celebrates the 1930s Irish aviator, Lilian Bland. In contrast the title poem ‘On Balance’ is an angry lyric taking on some particularly misogynistic thoughts of Philip Larkin. Yet the collection is profoundly unified as it traces through its different subject areas the central conceit of tension and its metaphorical counterparts; the pull and push of emotion, the claims of different generations, tipping points in ecology, politics, economics, groundedness and flight.
The collection’s primary concern, to find the vivid equivalent in language for the weight and release of experience, is consummately achieved in the tour de force which is the first poem, ‘The Millihelen’ (a millihelen is a fanciful unit of measurement). The poem is set in Belfast, a city Morrissey knows well. The piece conveys the stutter and stateliness of the Titanic’s launch in one single, meticulously orchestrated sentence. The poem’s opening is all elegant stability, the lines slowed by regular pentameter and assonantal vowels, “ladies lining the quay in their layered drapery”. But then a blizzard of syntax and agitated meter interrupt the equilibrium to recreate the teetering, cliff-edge moment of the launch: “…and it starts/grandstand of iron palace of rivets starts/moving starts slippery-sliding down/…”
This instant of the launch is characterized as a “… moment swollen with catgut-/about-to-snap…,” which pulls the reader up; we know what will ultimately befall this ship. This fascination with, and recasting of, the concept of time is felt again in ‘The Singing Gates’ which fluidly catches the groundswell of consciousness as thoughts to do with past, present and future converge on a familiar walk.
The separation of poetic self from poetic subject can be fraught, especially when it involves close relations. Striking about Morrissey’s work is how sensitively it negotiates this issue. Family members are never reduced to the writer’s attitude towards them but freed into the actuality of themselves. The exquisite ‘The Rope’ locates in the sudden courtesy of two children at play a growing bond that will accompany them through life, “And I can almost see it thicken between you, /your sibling-tetheredness,…”. The piece has the confidence to resolve with the quietest of touches, as the speaker, no longer present in the imagined future, fades from the work. Poems of motherhood are rarely this good.
For all the singular, precisely-etched details of a real city – the bulldogs, banks and credit cards, the backyards, bars and washing lines, even the moths and poplars which have darkened as they evolved to survive in the soot of Manchester’s industrial past – there’s a placelessness to Michael Symmons Roberts’ Mancunia which indicates that this city is one of the mind. It is a liminal space where past encounters future; death, life; hope, despair; the wished for, what is. It is a world, our world, caught, as Symmons Roberts puts it in ‘Self-Portrait with Dog’, between “is” and “ought”. This question of the gulf between how we should live and how we do, our recurrent failure to make our society more just (the conflicted text, Thomas More’s Utopia, is one of the inspirations for the collection) is the urgent engine powering the book. These are metaphysical questions and they have always been Symmons Roberts’ territory, his past work marked out by them just as much as by its visceral imagery of blood and of the body, evident here again – “…the guts, lungs, lights that make us real…” (‘The Cold’).
That there is no easy answer which will heal the chasm between what is and what should be informs the collection’s tone: unsettled, wary of pat consolation, the humour often ironic. This is a book of shadows and portents as in ‘My Father’s Death’ where the speaker anticipates the event – “as if to preview loss might stem its force”. The poetry inhabits the public as well as the private sphere bringing us municipal functionaries as well as the victims of a large metropolis. The excoriating ‘In Paradisum,’ tackles compassion fatigue towards migrants. By making us uncomfortably complicit, it earns its rhetorical stance. Though occasionally some of the poems can feel distanced, when their song does break through it is a moment of illumination, particularly when the lyric voice is buoyed by rhyme. Symmons Roberts’ unshowy use of rhyme is one of the chief pleasures of the book. ‘Tightrope Song’ aptly tautens and slackens its rhymed couplets to explore issues of trust and credulity. ‘I Shake Out My Coat’, which echoes back to the arresting poem ‘Pelt’ in Corpus (2004), speaks volumes about the lives we accrue and the world we have made, in one surreal, symbolic gesture. And in the unrhymed ‘Mancunian Misere,’ the intimate voice and carefully selected present-day detail light up the ancient psalm form as it confesses the speaker’s “constancy of inattention” to the natural world and to fellow human beings: “that man-cocoon asleep on the steps/of a new-closed bank where once I queued to find my balance…” Symmons Roberts is just as aware as Morrissey of the powerful metaphorical resonance of those last two words.
In her latest book, After Economy, JL Williams is interested in pushing the boundaries of language through experiments with syntax, textual signification and sound. She’s also concerned with a different kind of threshold, locating some of her poems on the controversial dividing line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste. This can result in work that’s edgily provocative such as ‘Hey Did You Hear about the Kurds in Turkey?’ There are poems on the Brexit referendum, Breaking Bad and Slavoj Žižek; Williams’ thematic terrain ranges from contemporary politics, culture and theory to the natural world, religion and mythology. ‘Bread Song’ assaults the visual field through the exhaustive use of the exclamation mark. More potent are the exercises in sonics, such as the liquid beauty of the long vowels which constitute ‘Water What Sounds.’ The different aesthetics in play make for a rather fractured read and not all the poems crystallize. Sometimes, too, the formal work feels hampered rather than freed by its constraints. However, of the generally strong series of prose-poems, ‘While on the plane’, about the retrieval of memory in language, stands out. And the final piece ‘Bounty,’ which makes skilful use of lacunae to actualise its questions about life and death, gods and humanity, is striking for its authoritative poise.