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 speak