On Balance by Sinead Morrissey won the 2017 Forward Prize for best collection of poetry. I had not read any Morrissey before so this seemed like a good place to start. I skipped and commuter-elbow jostled my way through a first reading and was left with an overall sense of “a few cracking lines but nothing too remarkable”. Then a comment from a friend made me go back and look at one poem, slowly and carefully, this led to another and another and before I knew it, I was in Oz.
The bravura opening of the millihelen (named on the supposition that if the beauty of one Helen, launched a thousand boats then the launching of this one, must take a thousandth of that); a poem without punctuation (can’t see that catching on as a gimmick) that runs together like butter, treacle and sugar being warmed over a hob. It describes the launching of the Titanic, the whole poem gathers speed as if sliding into the bay, before the great ship hits the water, “as if it were ordinary”…and everything rocks and wobbles for a moment before, “everything regains its equilibrium.” It is a poem to be read and re-read and read out loud, even if you are on the bus.
The next poem, At the Moscow State Circus passed me by originally but on studying it becomes interesting to see how tightly woven and intricate it is. On Balance is a stiletto-sharp rejoinder to Larkin and his heavy-trowelled misogyny, “You rarely mention women,/ except to stress our looks/ or what we cannot do…” And on the exemplary stuff rolls.
Morrissey has a tendency to bugger about with where the poem is on the page, floating stanzas here and there like clouds; creating two columns, like a newspaper of short snappy stanzas side by side; and once, incredibly annoyingly, at 90 degrees to the regular alignment of the page. I suppose she has good reasons for this, in the main they feel like affectations and with words this well put together that seems unnecessary. That said, the “newspaper columns” poem, Platinum Anniversary is one of the best in the collection. An honest celebration of a long and happy partnership in which a fierce love still burns;
“dagger tucked into my waist-
band should you ever
one flick of my ivory
wrist and I’d collapse
in the wet of my
With the threat of violence on betrayal, turned inwards. It says a great deal in few words.
The sequence of six poems under the title Collier, are beautiful, ordinary, coruscating and take this miner/grandfather crippled by a pit accident on the “most exhilarating trajectory” until he tastes “the rind of the moon, without ever leaving home.” Or there is the looser sequence of three “Beatles in their early days” related poems, of which the “knicker-wetting” Perfume is an absolute belter, both because of the subject matter, rarely but daringly handled here, and because of the quality of the thing itself.
There are mis-steps: the “cute kids” poem Nativity seems to offer little, especially when read alongside My Life According to You, another kids poem, in which she seems to show herself how it can be done well (if it has to be done at all).
The last poem to pick out individually would be The Singing Gates, a long poem in which a former prisoner and ‘enemy of the state’ on his release,
“…walked to work every day thereafter, walked to think,
walked for pleasure, walked to stretch every inch of his cell
by laying it down, over and over, on the floor
of the borderless world…”
This poem is so assured that the poet finishes with eleven questions in the final six lines and it does not seem out of place, or wrong in any way.
The collection is a joy. Buy your own copy because you’re not having mine.