On Balance: A Review
On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey.
Carcanet Press 72 pp; £8.99 ISBN: 978 1 784103 60 6
On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey’s sixth collection, is a rich, intertextual collection that engages and challenges the potential of form as signifier, pushing the visual field of page poetry into new and challenging spaces. ‘The Mayfly’ opens:
Conspicuously mis-christened- what chink
in the general atmosphere, what sudden
lift of bones and breath
allowed you to stand up straight in mechanic’s overalls
(skirts are out of the question) and plot
your escape into the sky?
Like the right foot of Louis Blériot,
trapped beside one of his overheating
engines, like the umpteen previous
This pattern is repeated ten times, with the last and first lines of adjoining stanzas being the only ones to share indentation points. This pairing elicits a sense of relationship and understanding across the empty spaces: a relay of stanzas pushing the boundaries on both sides of the page. Through this structure we see the determination of Lilian Bland (the first woman to design, build and fly her own aeroplane) to succeed, and of Morrissey, to perpetuate her feat of excellence.
‘Das Ding An Sich’ is again a poem whose meaning is carried, indeed revealed, through its form:
a pig two cows a dray horse geese
by the back door a gaggle of grandmothers
kiln-dry barns hay until summer
gardens tucked into an orderly slumber
This is a structure that communicates as it miscommunicates. Its opening stanza gives the reader a sense of pastoral calm and the expectation of some higher truth from its sedate, prosaic images. The spaces between the words come as contented breaths: the disconnect between thoughts and words, ideas and semantics; until the poem’s final stanza reveals the gaps to be those of knowledge and understanding:
unmoored from speech
in the blistering static of Grossdeutscher
Rundfunk’s final broadcast
The reader discovers that these spaces are not empty, but filled with atrocities, unknown, unheard, and unobserved. Morrissey, through her restraint and form, forces the reader to confront their ignorance, fill in the blanks and, furthermore, to seek out the uncomfortable truths, to question, always question, those channels through which our knowledge of the world is formed.
‘The Wheel of Death’, in contrast, dazzles and dizzies the reader. The relationship between form and content is a playful one: the balance between anticipation and disappointment, fear and excitement:
we can’t undo
(though we don’t want to).
Wind lashes the outer awning
like the last of days,
we watch you rise
to the ceiling
in a wire-strung
cage – & then run
the length of its radius, round
& round, as the trussed
from its own blind
hurtling momentum down & lifts
you through & high
& over & wide
of the lip
In the Wheel of the Death, the rider pushes back against the rules of gravity. To succeed they must travel at high speeds in confined spaces and retain complete control over their motorcycle. Any mistake could be fatal. In much the same way, the poet must retain full control of their form as they push it to its very limits, or the reader will be left unimpressed and uninspired. The tension here is a thrilling one that stops the vibrant experience fading into static sepia. The poem is a moving one, inviting the reader not just to read it, but to watch it.
On Balance is not a collection of multiple narratives, but multiple dialogues: filled with poems that intersect with other poems, respond to other lives and art forms; poems that bring the reader, not poetry as product, but poetry as process; not rhetoric, but conversation. There are multiple poems that touch on similar topics, and series of poems that focus on a single topic from multiple perspectives. And they are all talking: to us, and to each other.
It is in ‘Articulation’, about the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo, that we get the strongest sense of this aesthetic of discourse:
for however long he lasts before he crumbles,
portal, time machine, skeleton key
to what cannot be imagined. Who could resist
Morrissey provides the bare bones: the reader reconstructs the objects mentioned, the events alluded to; but in doing so, we inevitably temper our renditions to our own experiences by the breed or colouring we assign its long-gone body, by the addition or subtraction of socks and saddles. The poem on the page, therefore, is never the same as the poem in the hands, and eyes, and mind of the reader.
A key component of this collection’s balance is that every topic, no matter how ancient or modern, universal or individualistic, is treated with the same gravitas: be it a grandfather’s internment, a treatise on a wasted life, global warming, or the role superheroes play in shaping a child’s perspective. Nothing is seen as underserving because: the eternal and ephemeral are companions here, not competitors.
This is a collection that can appear intimidating at first glance. It is strong, and unashamed of its strength. The confidence espoused through form and subject matter shows us, not just what Morrissey is capable of, but what poetry can do when we push and expand our definition of poetry. It is an exciting time to be a poet, and a reader of poetry.
To date, On Balance has been:
Winner of the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Collection
Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Choice Award
Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Poetry Award
Shortlisted for the 2018 Pigott Poetry Prize
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