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Review of The State of the Prisons
David Morley enjoys the formal risks and subtle linkages in Sinéad Morrisey's The State of the PrisonsPrevious review of 'The State of the Prisons'... Next review of 'The State of the Prisons'... To the 'The State of the Prisons' page...
The Guardian, Saturday 1st October 2005
The whales in Helen's Bay
Sinéad Morrisey is part of a fascinating new school of poets in Ireland, mostly in their 30s, who take pleasure in the denseness and complexity of language and are driven to test how much the body of a poem can contain. This generation - which includes the poets Vona Groarke, David Wheatley and Conor O'Callaghan - has had the poems of Heaney, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon whispering over their desks since their schooldays. Their poetry's linguistic sensuousness, economy, seriousness, classicism and playfulness are markers of that nurturing and receiving. Their ears are well trained; they know that the noise a poem makes is of an equal consequence to what it communicates.
Morrisey has already published two collections, There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996) and Between Here and There (2002), shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, which had the virtue of variety, especially of form, shape and subject. Her third collection, The State of the Prisons, which has won the 2005 Michael Hartnett Poetry Award, achieves an even more various timbre. This excellent book travels again, this time to China, and also finds chords of interest and illumination in the worlds of anatomy, in the biosphere and in the politics of salt ("For a second I don't hear the kettle boil / and wonder: if Iraq mined salt instead of oil?"). As those lines suggest, she makes linkages without overplaying them. "Pilots" tells of the mistaken visit to the Irish Sea of a school of Newfoundland whales, but opens: "It was black as the slick-stunned coast of Kuwait / over Belfast Lough ... " Having set up that resonance, the poem moves forwards through 34 lines of natural description and worried whales, until the reader is invited to think twice about the lines:
"From Carrickfergus to Helen's
Bay, birdwatchers with
binoculars held sway while the
city sat empty. The whales
Children sighed when they
dived, then clapped as they rose
again, Christ-like and shining,
from the sea, though they
could have been
dying out there ..."
In her poem on China, a 6,000-mile train journey is transformed into an exequy for a lost brother and for lost memories of childhood, as she sets her "camera / more deliberately now on the vast, peopleless / expanse, then check its screen / to see if I've got anything / in its wide-eyed little net". The poem pulls its focus right back and makes its sharp connection:
"I don't know what I expected -
one or two of the million Yangtze
drowned, perhaps, still draining their ears
by banging the sides of their heads, or looking after
the vanishing tumult of the train
for directions home?"
The shapes of the poems in this book will surprise you; I hope they will delight you. The State of the Prisons reminds us that some of the pleasures we take in any art form, or in scientific ideas, or even in good engineering for that matter, owe less to what is created and what that means, and more to how well something is made, or even how it is made then unmade, tinkered with, played on. It is possible, for example, to enjoy a poem without understanding it completely, because of the pleasure given by the cadences of language, the shaping of the form, the organisation of rhyme, the strategies by which lines, line-endings and stanzas are structured and ordered, or deliberately bamboozled and disordered.
Of course, all these things, when done well, are only means to making the poem run itself and be its own machine or, as Robert Frost put it, to making it "ride on its own melting". One of the major rewards of The State of the Prisons lies in the way Morrisey makes her poetic machines work and ride: in her formal risk, not least the outrageousness and enchantment of her rhymes, but also the occasional pushed-to-the-brink line-lengths, some of which feel like walking the plank with the eye. You have to trust her.
The title poem pulls all her strengths into equilibrium. The hospital and prison reformer John Howard (1726-90) published his investigation and conclusions on penal reform as The State of the Prisons in 1777. It made him famous. This material, and two biographies of Howard, provided ignition for Morrisey's long poem. This could be stolid stuff in the wrong hands, but is conducted with skill and vigour. It exults in the facts of Howard's European travels and fame, the invitations of popes and princesses, how he declined the company of Catherine the Great "on account of her lax morality". Most cunning of all, it weaves in the biography of Howard's wayward son, "flailing and spitting in my hallway, / Demented with hatred", made "twisted ... with neglect", and concludes with excerpts from his will and testament interspun with a civil rhetoric that is believable and moving:
"...Teach them to ask forgiveness
So they can emerge from solitude like butterflies from a chrysalis.
Lead them to the wall of self-discovery
Which they will bleed upon, before they see their faces ..."
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