Many years ago , I had a treasured book – a history of scientific ideas – and what I liked most about it were the illustrations of various models and contraptions. Ptolemaic spheres! Arabian water clocks! Alchemical cucurbits! I tried to account for my fascination with these objects. Was it artisanal appreciation? The visual appeal of things in an age of signals and circuits? Or was it a species of vanitas? I worried that my atavistic fondness for stanzas might be somehow related – a stanza being, in Joseph Brodsky’s words, ‘a self-generating device’, and one whose original mnemonic purpose has, for the most part, gone the way of the barouche.
On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey’s sixth collection, subjects mechanical devices and engineering marvels to formal constraints (Carcanet, £9.99). In so doing, this slim but muscular volume promises to show the reader something about human memory and self-generation. Morrissey can spin ingenious epyllions with just a line and a concept; and although she has shown a penchant for history throughout her career, she writes poems so vivid that they can only be set in the present even when they reach into the past. A case in point is the opening poem, ‘The Millihelen’, which conjures up the launch of the Titanic from Belfast drydocks in 1911. (Morrissey was born in County Armagh.) A ‘millihelen’ is an imaginary metric of beauty: if Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, then a millihelen launches a mere one. The notion itself is humorous; that Morrissey borrows it for the Titanic, to which the qualifier ‘mere’ cannot apply; that the whole poem hinges on whether the ship will topple on its slide towards the water; and that this ungainly mass could have anything to do with beauty of Helen’s ilk, heightens the good-natured comedy. Of course the ship does not topple, but lands in the water with such a commotion that, for a moment, it seems the foundation of the world does shake.
Though he’s not mentioned in the poem, the scenario recalls two stories from Archimedes: that he conceived of a fulcrum from which the Earth could be moved by a single lever, and that he discovered the key to measuring the volume of a crown (to determine its precious metal content) by noticing the way his own body displaced water in the bath. That’s the original ‘Eureka!’ moment, and so it must have been when the Titanic hit the water, and so it must have been for Morrissey when she completed 34 lines of this unpunctuated, headlong, single-sentence poem with ‘in fact everything regains its equilibrium.’
The title says it all: On Balance suggests both a topical essay and a turn of phrase that amounts to something like ‘all things considered’. Across her oeuvre, Morrissey is very much a pan-writer, given to the panegyric, the panorama, and at times (as in ‘The Millihelen’) pandemonium. But never for long: I said her comedy was good-natured, and there is something profoundly sane and warm about her, silly like Yeats (her circus poems inevitably descend from his), and reassuring like Heaney; I even wondered if On Balance, with its promise of restored equilibrium, its preoccupation with trusty analogue technology, its odes to ‘Ingenious Mechanical Devices’ and ‘Das Ding an Sich’, harks back to Heaney’s rain-stick and fireman’s hat and swinging basket. Her poem ‘Collier’, about a grandfather, brings his generation to life with lists of nouns, beginning with the horses he followed at the races: ‘Larkspur, League of Nations, Isinglass, Never Say Die’. His ‘damaged house’ contains ‘pairs of boots … a tea cosy from a shop, a pigeon cote out the back’. His ideal wedding supper is ‘ham on the bone; salmon, roast beef, egg-and-cress; a cake’.
This down-to-earth quality is balanced by all that is up in the air, undecided, oscillating. ‘The Mayfly’ is the most celebratory, with its paean to County Antrim’s Lilian Bland, who designed, built and flew the eponymous biplane. ‘Conspicuously mis-christened’, Morrissey jokes, since mayflies have short lives, and, anyway, who would want to test-pilot a machine that may fly? Emphasising the vowel chiasmus in biplane/mayfly, Morrissey herself contrives a linguistic flying machine, and recaptures the acoustics in the last stanza with ‘your footprint missing on earth for the span/of a furlong, as if a giant had lifted its boot’. Words, like planes and mayflies, make figures in the air.
Language also mimics the hectic action in ‘At the Moscow State Circus’, where acrobats performing to Mozart
onto a trampoline and using their dear launched breakable
selves as pens, as flares, sketch out for us in air what isn’t there:
a simple x, then denser, higher – cat’s-cradle architecture
strung taught as piano wire, rigging, fountains, the winged
horse in the sky, all his star points joined together
But the seeming invincibility of the acrobats, and of Lilian Bland, is not guaranteed. What is more often up in the air, in Morrissey’s worried view, is the future, and specifically the future of children. ‘At the Balancing Lakes’ recalls a drowning child dragged out of the water and the awful moments before she miraculously vomits. In ‘The Singing Gates’: ‘my granddad’s children/and their children and their children took turns with a kitchen scoop//to launch what was left of him into the air.’
In ‘Nativity’, Morrissey points to Mary as ‘the star of herself’ in a child’s Christmas pageant and voices the terrified apology of a mother who has made herself and her offspring hostages to fortune:
these people whom we’ve forged, whose frankincense
we breathed when they were born, and we’re sorry,
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 subterranean correspondence in On Balance between Morrissey the maker of poems and, thus, equilibrium, and Morrissey the mother who can’t control every vagary, bursts into light with the poem ‘Very Dyspraxic Child’. A neurologically impaired son assumes the character of Batman and
hurtles deep inside the cave of his Bat
Resources and flaps out sneakily immune
to the expanding circles of dizziness that loop
the room and everyone in it in a ship’s sick tilt
The poem turns into a charm, an incantation against the schoolchildren who bully the dyspraxic one. Like ‘The Millihelen’, which held its breath for 34 lines against catastrophe, ‘Very Dyspraxic Child’ is also a one-sentence poem that wills, with words, a safe launch and landing.
At this point one might wonder whether there isn’t something persistently wilful underlying the whole book. Morrissey’s enormous talent is for verse, that useless thing; set beside some very useful things, like world-changing inventions, she sometimes seems anxious for poetry to accomplish something magical with acts of praise. Heroic as it is, this wilfulness runs the risk of seeming strenuous. The lines run long and dense (‘Colour Photographs of Tsarist Russia’ has to be printed on its side); when the lines run short, she doubles the columns on the page, as in ‘Platinum Anniversary’ and the second part of ‘Perfume’. The shapes, while symmetrical in keeping with her theme, are sculptural, blocky, perhaps Constructivist (her references to early 20th-century Russia make me think of this). Her poetic footprints, like Lilian Bland’s, are a giant’s furlong. In this particular book she eschews rhyme, although she has rhymed brilliantly in past work; read for instance her ‘Don Juan, 2012’ – ottava rima on the financial crisis. Rhyme is often characterised as sweet (‘mellifluous’ means ‘flowing like honey’), and these poems don’t want to be sweet. Even when tender they’re bracing, exultant, gymnastic.
Is there any downtime at all among these wonder-workings? Yes, and spookily those moments occur in scenarios of limbo, among the preserved, the cryogenic. Nothing is really allowed to be dead in the magic zone of the collection. In a note to ‘Receiving the Dead’, Morrissey reminds us that the inventor of the radio thought his technology would pick up the voices of spirits; Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla believed in Electronic Voice Phenomena, or the paranormal activity that lurked in background noise. Morrissey, too, builds machines to capture the signals of the past. ‘Articulation’ takes a good long look at the skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon’s horse:
Moreover, put your eye to the eye socket
(one by one and gently) and observe
what changes: your straight perspective curves,
the floor on which you’re standing tilts,
the room’s clear atmosphere thickens
and as mirrors angled off against each other
produce an endless vaulted corridor
to somewhere else, still truer things are given:
of-all-the-Russias snow, a sky of smoke,
the bite of iron, entrails in a heap,
curled up like an outgrown foal, a man asleep
inside a horse’s ruptured stomach …
‘Hold your breath now while I show you this,’ the narrator advises in the final line; I’ve never seen ‘hold your breath’ used as a double entendre, asserting that history is both breathtaking and foul-smelling. Both ‘Whitelessness’, about archaeologists in thawing Greenland, and ‘From The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’, conjure the ghost in the machine, the libido in the fossil. On Balance demonstrates that poems, far from being an obsolete technology, were never just mnemonic machines in the first place: they were always simply the perfect instrument for human voices, both living and (un)dead.