Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 2013. 224 pages.
Reviewed by Joshua Jones
An Irish poet—especially one from the North—can languish under the pressures of her predecessors like Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Eavan Boland. But Sinead Morrissey’s selected poems, Parallax, opens a new gap for Irish poets to occupy. She moves beyond many of the “traditionally” Irish questions of essentializing local identity to explore history and globalization, often through the contemporary experience of motherhood.
The collection’s title is apt. As Morrissey reminds us at the beginning of the final section of the book, a Parallax is an “Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by change… of position of the point of observation.” The use of this term suggests that we keep James Joyce’s Ulysses in mind as we read, but Morrissey departs from other Irish poets like Heaney or McGovern who treat Joyce directly. We only see Joyce in a parallax of sorts; Morrissey gives the reader glimpses of him never as the traditional image of the Dubliner with the eyepatch but in the faces of people populating the various urban landscapes she explores. Without any hint of “Bloomian” anxieties, Morrissey hops from speaker to speaker, location to location, and form to form in ways that reflect the multivalent and globalized world that poetry must face today.
Morrissey knows that a book of selected poems presents challenges. In “Reading the Greats,” she asks herself,
Is it for their failures that I love them?
Ignoring the regulation of Selected Poems,
with everything in that should be in–
all belted & buttoned & shining–
I opt instead for omnivorous Completes.
She acknowledges that any selection she makes of her work compromises her particularity as a poet, but the image of a “Selected Poems” as “belted & and buttoned & shining” suits the book. While the narrative arcs of the first three collections in Parallax have been diminished to a degree by her cuts, she chooses poems that highlight the strength of the whole. She begins building and reinforcing the essential trope of the parallax early on by presenting us with multiple physical, personal, and temporal perspectives from which to look out. Just in the first section, Between Here and There, we find ourselves in Belfast, Kyoto, and a “midnight-bound Vegas plane” offering their unique vantages without attempting to totalize or justify them.
But while her poems hop from location to location and even time to time, Morrissey holds the collection together by turning her gaze to the themes of motherhood and loss again and again. These depictions of the grieving mother cut through the easy sentimentality of maternal affection and very often leave us unable to speak. In “Stitches,” she leads us from “extravagance in speech / and every spilled, exploded word [that] has been a stitch / in a blanket made for an imaginary baby” to the silence of “the screen said darkness—no spine, no heart. / And the stitches came apart.” She fashions a narrative out of synesthesia—we can nearly “see” the white noise of the fatal sonogram in these lines’ sibilance—blending the language of the visual and auditory, mimicking the disorientation of trauma.
In “Fairground Music” she imagines a similar situation—that of a miscarriage—in a different time and from the perspective of the expecting mother’s relative. The speaker tells us “The fair had come. It must have been Whitsun,” the festival of the descent of the Holy Spirit, and whether because of the quotidian language or the festive title, we assume all will be well. Her daughter Hazel and husband Tom will return from the fair to a house smelling of scones under the auspicious descent of the Spirit and the gift of tongues. But a young mother-to-be stops by the house to use the privy and leaves “grey as a newspaper.” Only later in the poem, after “the scones were finished,” does the speaker make us aware of the horror of the blood-covered privy and dead child leaning against the toilet bowl. Standing alone on its own line, the silent and subdued “I lifted the latch” precedes the revelation of the bloody tragedy, but by the poem’s conclusion, the speaker finds herself drowned out by the sounds of the fair. The town’s sacred mirth turns perverse in the face of a tragedy the speaker cannot name and shudders to acknowledge.
Nestled in the center of the book, Morrissey places her chapbook-length poem Don Juan, a poem about the Greek debt crisis. Morrissey manages the herculean task of making the life of a mid-level EU bureaucrat captivating by framing it with Byronic mythos and prosody, moving from the details of economic collapse in one stanza to the soul crushing futility of contemporary relationships in another. With the poem’s first line, “We need a hero. Time is out of joint,” she prepares us to read the poem of the contemporary Don Juan with a reference to Hamlet only to find out that the world has moved beyond the libidinous Byrons of modernity to the nuanced world of macroeconomic injustice and the language of political domination. Persephone, the Greek-born, Belgium-dwelling “Eurocrat” with whom Donald rather abruptly flirts at their first meeting, serves as our guide to the underworld of seemingly intractable debt politics. Showing Donald protesters battling police she tells him,
Disorder will go on–
they’ll broadcast it as students versus cops–
but it’s everyone. The people have no choice.
They’re damned already.”
She then takes him to the seaside cliff where Aegeus threw himself into the sea and where many Greeks have followed the mythical precedent in their despair brought about by economic hardship. But Persephone wants Donald to see such situations—not without unspoken parallels in Belfast—with a naive hope for resolution. In a headache-induced morning stupor, he imagines a solution in which the EU “simply give[s] Greeks more cash, / to spend just as they like, side-stepping banks” before crashing back to the stark realities of international politics. However, Morrissey concludes the poem in a space of uncertainty, on a page of Donald’s notebook blank except “‘Athens’, [and] the date” to which he adds Persephone’s name and “casts it on the water” in a gesture suggesting both despair and potential.
Parallax has no shortage of material to praise, and much more time could be spent on the crucial work done in its other long narrative poem “The State of the Prisons” which tells the story of John Howard’s struggles as a prison reformer and father. I’m sure scholars will busy themselves parsing out the intertextual resonances, as preoccupied as the book is with visiting texts as well as places. Likewise, it wouldn’t be fair to discuss this book without at least a mention of Morrissey’s careful prosody and music in phrases like, “who falter at first, erratic as static / in the synaptic gap between each image.” But that “synaptic gap” is precisely where the reader is directed, into the silence between histories and locations, which any further praise would only drown out.