Review by Sean Robinson
A giant peacock standing on a roof vomits, into a horse trough below, a stream of water, which a tiny person standing on a tennis ball tries to catch as it passes the window. This image, on the front cover of Sinéad Morrissey’s On Balance (Carcanet, 2017), is ‘a Peacock Basin’ from ‘the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’ (1206) by Al-Jazari, and engineering emerges as a theme of the book. The first poem’s title ‘The Millihelen’ denotes a unit of beauty; the amount required to launch a ship, or a thousandth of the beauty of Helen of Troy. Describing the launching of the Titanic, this poem eschews punctuation and delights in unusual syntax:
and now a switch is flicked at a distance
and the moment swollen with catgut-
about-to-snap with ice picks hawks’ wings
pine needles eggshells bursts and it starts
grandstand of iron palace of rivets starts
moving starts slippery-sliding down
After several read-throughs, the object of these ‘starts’ is revealed to be the ship itself, and when, eventually, sense emerges, the wild kilter of these lines becomes enjoyable. The simple phrasing of the final line mimics the comparative calm of a ship, now safely afloat. I’ve never been so relieved to see a full stop:
as though it were ordinary and wobbles
ever so slightly and then it and the sun-splashed
titled hills the railings the pin-striped awning
in fact everything regains its equilibrium.
Morrissey is at her best when using shorter lines and rhyme. The collection’s title suggests that the poems within, like the machines they sometimes describe, will be elegantly balanced. In general they are not, but ‘At The Balancing Lakes’ comes closest, and begins with two beautiful couplets:
A girl is drowning.
A cuckoo is throwing
its voice in the trees
to the back of us
It’s a shame that the lovely gentle rhyme is dropped after this, but the immediate and surprising quality of the images continues – even if the enjambment jars:
The girl is bouncing
on an underwater
trampoline but slowing down.
Another ‘underwater’ image is just as successful in ‘The Wheel of Death’, a poem about a circus, which again rhymes softly, and does so consistently this time:
& the children’s glittery wrists
& headgear – they bob & jerk
in the smoky dark
But at the end of ‘At The Balancing Lakes’, after the girl has been rescued, a cog catches and the poem shudders:
and the crisp packets and the
servants in waiting stand up
This final image is oblique, and an otherwise elegant poem is spoiled by an unfathomable ending. Such choices are common in the book. There is no reason, for example, in ‘Very Dispraxic Child’, for Morrissey to change the name of Batman’s headquarters from ‘The Batcave’ to the ‘the cave of his Bat/Resources’. Nor is there sense in the choice of some metaphors. ‘Nativity’, a poem about a primary school play, includes a casual reference to ‘Odysseus’ that takes us away from either the location of the poem, or the play within it. I am reminded of Dr Johnson on the Metaphysical Poets: ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. But in On Balance, heterogeneous ideas are not ‘yoked’ – they are merely placed in the same paddock in the hope that they will not squabble. The images function well to colour the scene, but ask anything of them in their connotative capacity and you will be disappointed.
‘Nativity’ is one of the mediocre poems that typify this collection. At sixty-nine longish lines it is one of the shorter poems in the book. (‘Collier’, a nostalgic ramble about domestic life in the olden days, runs to six pages.) Nevertheless, it is too protracted for what it achieves, and, for me, the dull subject matter was made worse by a lack of interesting music or imagery. Take these lines, beginning in the middle of the headmaster’s speech:
That all the world and several weeks’ rehearsals
should be taxed. And thanks to those who helped
with sewing and thanks to those who witnessed
in their houses that a child was born this day
and thanks to everyone for turning up and time
to welcome the fixed astonishing star over Bethlehem
and all the other stars and please applause.
We turn as heliotropes to the sun to watch
Morrissey appears to fall victim to the mimetic fallacy: the mistake of attempting to replicate in the poem some quality of its subject. In the case of ‘The Millihelen’, that means a caterwhauling poem that eventually settles; ‘Collier’ conjures the spirit of a grandparent’s interminable reminiscence; in ‘My Life According to You’, a three-pager about the speaker’s history as understood by her child, it leads to infantile phrasing and ideas such as:
for a week I was also at university
a bigger place than school with bigger
chairs and desks…
In ‘Nativity’, it leaves us with a poem as dull as a primary school play. Again, the ending is weak:
but we don’t know how it happened, or what
the instructions are – we’ve left them in itchy
kneesocks, holding up a sign – or how it will end.
The positioning of the subclause is clumsy and the introduction of mortality so half-hearted as to be ridiculous. ‘Nativity’ is touching in a sentimental way, but this cannot carry a poem very far.
The titular poem takes a swing at Philip Larkin’s sexism. It’s hardly a timely attack, coming twenty-four years after Andrew Motion’s biography A Writer’s Life solidified the posthumous public image of Larkin as someone with racist and sexist tendencies – a depiction that has been challenged by many close to him. Morrissey’s contribution to the discussion is weak and disingenuous. She begins by misleadingly quoting his poem ‘Born Yesterday’ to distort its meaning and provide a straw man for her attack. Larkin’s poem, written ‘for Sally Amis’, begins by describing ‘the usual stuff’ wished for a new born girl: beauty, innocence, love. And goes on:
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.
But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called.
Underlined are the words that Morrissey quotes from the poem. She includes an ellipsis in square brackets between ‘balance’ and ‘In fact’, and omits the dash after ‘dull’. This removes two conditionals. Paring the poem down to its most basic meaning, we have in the original:
if |you can’t have beauty, innocence, and love|
then |may you be dull|
only if |‘to be dull’ signifies happiness|,
and we are left, in Morrissey’s quotation, with:
|may you be dull|.
The omission of the dash after ‘dull’ is a misquotation, and gives the false impression of an ending; the elision of the two lines preceding this line is misleading. This move results in the rhetorically provocative phrase in Larkin’s self-aware poem being presented as if it were his artless sentiment, creating an easy target for what Morrissey would have the reader believe to be her rebuttal.
Larkin’s poem is in two stanzas of ten and fourteen short lines; Morrissey borrows the form, but has eleven lines in the first stanza and doesn’t rhyme. Her response to Larkin’s poem begins:
Even fully grown,
she’d be a ‘girl’ to you.
You rarely mention women
This is a rather tepid burn, which is cooled further because the word ‘women’ features in the quotation she provides, and the word ‘girl’ does not. The banal praise of the line ‘I wouldn’t let you near my brilliant daughter’ isn’t helped by the ill-timing of its fighting talk. Larkin died in 1985; Morrissey was born in ‘72. We can assume that Larkin has been dead for her daughter’s entire life, so there’s little risk of his coming ‘near’. The poem ends with more praise for her own daughter, lame in comparison to the affecting conclusion of ‘Born Yesterday’:
so far, in fact, from dull,
that radiant, incandescent
are as shadows on the landscape
after staring at the sun.
Hardly specific to the individual, or original. There is a lot to criticise in Larkin’s work as regards his attitudes towards women. We need good poems to reveal and attack the sexism endemic in the Western canon, but work as bad as this, prominent in being the collection’s titular poem, is damaging to that cause.
This is a special kind of failing; others in the book are more pedestrian, and the collection as a whole has many qualities. On Balance has been extremely well received by prize committees and reviewers alike: it won the Forward Prize for best collection, and has been shortlisted for the Costa. It seems that its appeal lies in the universality of the stories told. If you do read the book, then, to avoid missing the highlights, I would advise starting at the back, where the better poems are.
Sean Robinson is studying for a masters in poetry writing at St Andrews under Don Paterson. An erstwhile policy wonk, he graduated in 2013 from Oxford with a bachelors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and worked for some time with the Civil Service, until deciding to chuck it all in to do something useful, and write poems. He is from London.