Belfast folk aver there was nothing wrong with the Titanic when she left their slipway. As that city’s inaugural laureate Sinéad Morrissey arrives in Newcastle, her most recent collection On Balance opens by contemplating the fated liner’s launch. “Millihelen” charts the day’s excitements and unstoppable force – the titular word being “a fanciful unit of measurement meaning the amount of physical beauty required to launch a single ship.” In a book which leaves Belfast Lough ultimately to berth in Eastern Anatolia by means of a skilful navigation of Prussia, an insufficiently celebrated woman aviator, Arctic explorers, and an unpicking of the poet’s own family history, there are far too many Millihelens to itemise. Like her compatriot Heaney, Morrissey’s narrative verse offers accessible embarkation points for many, then layer upon layer of taut re-readable complexities.
Throughout, the title is threaded through a range of contexts: historical, gendered, environmental and more. Visually satisfying in their precisely weighted and highly formal structure on the page, read aloud these poems’ sound qualities are equally honed. Each in some way contemplates the abyss and the measuring leading to the precipice; to read is to be drawn to the brink and beyond, to teeter and feel the vertigo. There is a muscular forward thrust in these lines, propelled by rhythm and carefully reined internal rhyme. Whether the consequences of tipping the balance prove happy or not, these poems drive relentlessly, their precision laser-like. Even in very lengthy poems, there is no redundancy; Morrissey’s piercing saw accuracy cuts to the quick.
Formally structured though they are, closed forms are absent, but many have something of the sonnet’s impetus. Several are long works, some extending continuously, or in sections, to several pages. If there is no volta as such, each poem or sequence offers a tipping point or fulcrum against which the before and after are measured, tending to fall proportionately where a volta would. In the sequences, that same ratio is observable in the fulcrum poem. Morrissey has a subtle way too, of tilting something of one poem into the next (particularly beautifully in the poems neighbouring “Very Dyspraxic child”), so that the collection in its entirety encapsulates the formal balance present at the level of line and word.
That balance challenges not only by the words, but by their placing; with each sharp line and stanza break, adroit positioning enhances every word’s meaning. Such is the grace of form doing more than words alone that it feels almost iconoclastic to quote; taking anything out of context risks diminishing the poem’s equilibrium. Consider this section, from “The Wheel of Death”:
but for the flung- down disc of the Ring & the children’s glittery wrists & headgear – they bob & jerk in the smoky dark like anglerfish in the abyssal trench. Drums & cymbals crash us all awake & before our very eyes the show unravels: arctic wolves on chairs [.]
Shape poems generally offer me few joys. This one runs to eighteen deserved stanzas, governed by what Gwyneth Lewis unpacked as the forward drive of narrative, harnessed by the backward pull of form. Morrissey’s mastery of this discipline is evidenced throughout On Balance. What a quotation cannot show is how the rhyme scheme and syllabic pattern quicken as the poem gears up, to slow again in the final section. Equally the trippingly elegant final poem, surely as graceful as the original Arabic book it explores, makes studied use of tercets, controlled rhyme and mouth-filling syllables, demonstrating perfectly how structure is intrinsic to the poem’s sense.
Whether On Balance will add the Forward Prize to Parallax’s deserved Eliot I cannot know, but this is as beautiful a collection as I have read in a long time. Poetry absolutely watertight, fit for purpose. Tyneside’s already rich creative community opens horizons as Sinéad Morrissey anchors.