Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 2013 – Parallax, by Sinéad Morrissey
The poet grew up in the heat of the Troubles, but her work avoids any direct reckoning
Sinéad Morrissey: more than one way to view history
If anyone could be said to have been raised to be the laureate of a postconflict Northern Ireland it is Sinéad Morrissey. She grew up with deep sectarian division in Portadown, Co Armagh, and, later, in north Belfast. But she never identified with either of the two main traditions: her parents were active communists, and she and her brother were reared in the politics of socialism, feminism and proletarian revolution rather than those of the Troubles.
The results of that upbringing can be seen in a deep, if often ironic, sense of a history that is not part of the grand narratives of either the Irish or the British tribes.
In Morrissey’s fifth poetry collection, Parallax, which won both the TS Eliot Prize and the Irish Times Poetry Now award, The Party Bazaar evokes neither orange nor green but the gathering of the communist faithful in Belfast:
In the background, Kalinka on cassette
belted out by the Red Army Choir
wobbles towards its peak. There’s tea
coffee, Irish stew and a cool display
of anti-Mrs Thatcher paraphernalia.
Morrissey was something of a poetic prodigy, repeatedly winning Irish Schools Creative Writing Awards and becoming the youngest winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award when she was just 18. She studied English and German at Trinity College Dublin and lived for spells in New Zealand, Japan and Germany before coming back to Ireland to undertake a PhD in 18th-century literature. She returned to Belfast in 1999, five years after the IRA ceasefire.
The conflict is certainly a presence in her work. In 2007 she took first prize in the UK’s National Poetry Competition with Through the Square Window, which holds in tension the image of the dead gathering outside a window with that of a child sleeping peacefully indoors:
In my dream the dead have arrived
to wash the windows of my house.
There are no blinds to shut them out with.
That hauntedness is typical of Morrissey. But the violence that seeps into Parallax is more likely to be from The Wire or The Bridge, on television, than from the streets of Belfast.
Her relationship to the past is much more complex than any direct reckoning with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s recent violence. A much larger past seems to crowd in on her, history’s lost people demanding recognition of their humanity. In A Lie the falsehood of the title is “That their days were not like our days, / the different people who lived in sepia.”
The title Parallax refers to the apparent change in the position of an object caused by the actual change in the position of the observer. And the poems suggest that the past itself is constantly changing as we observe it. With its multiple references to photography, Parallax was inspired by the ground-breaking images of Belfast’s slums by the Edwardian photographer Alexander Robert Hogg. Morrissey’s Hogg is trying for purely aesthetic effects but encounters “a man by the railings / ghost himself / by turning his head too soon”.
Ghosts and absences always intrude themselves on the pretensions of objective history. The Doctors takes off from the “disappearing” from official Soviet photographs of those who had fallen foul of Stalin:
nail files, ink and Sellotape, he has been vanished
alongside other party operatives who touched
His sleeve, or didn’t clap for long enough, or loved
their wives, or laughed, or who pointed the way
down some rickety steps as though He needed help.
The poem evokes these deleted people as “scratched absences . . . made luminous as moons”. Sinéad Morrissey has made herself the poet of luminous absence.
Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie