- Northern Ireland
Poet Sinéad Morrissey was born on 24 April 1972 in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
She has published six collections of poetry: There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996); Between Here and There (2002); The State of the Prisons (2005); Through the Square Window (2009); Parralax (2013) and On Balance (2017). Three of her first four collections were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, which she eventually won with Parralax.
She was the 2002 Poetry International Writer in Residence at the Royal Festival Hall and is currently Writer in Residence at Queen's University, Belfast. Having lived and worked in Japan and New Zealand, she now lives in Northern Ireland. She was selected by the British Council to take part in the Writers' Train Project in China in 2003.
In 2007 she was awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In 2010, Through The Square Window was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, a prize she won in 2017 for On Balance.
The title poem of Sinead Morrissey’s collection Through the Square Window (2009) won the UK National Poetry Competition in 2007. This is an enigmatic dream scenario, in which ‘the dead have arrived / to wash the windows of my house’, and ‘One blue boy holds a rag in his teeth / between panes like a conjuror’.
The poem is also an anxiety dream, mentioning her newborn son, and places in her Northern Ireland locality. But these ominous presences suddenly vanish. ‘And there is a horizon / from which only the clouds stare in’. This could be interpreted as a momentary vision of eternity amidst everyday concerns, perhaps reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’. Indeed, one recalls that Morrissey had specifically invoked that iconic work, and Larkin’s life, in ‘To Look Out Once from High Windows’, from her first collection, There was Fire in Vancouver (1996).Morrissey is part of a younger generation of Irish poets already achieving some prominence, who were students together at Trinity College, Dublin during the 1990s; the others being Justin Quinn, David Wheatley, and Caitriona O’Reilly. Like theirs, her poems are highly literary, but hers have also developed spiritual interests. She acknowledged the early importance to her of R.S. Thomas, who wrote, she observed, ‘regardless of a predominantly atheistic environment’. Yet her writing isn’t piously religious. On the contrary, it is as much international as local, observing foreign cultures (notably Japan where she was a teacher) and on her travels to New Zealand, America, China et al. Her imagination always returns to Belfast – where she grew up during height of ‘The Troubles’ – as well as to the now-more cosmopolitan city where she currently lives and teaches at Queens University.Between Here and There (2002) was shortlisted for that year’s T.S. Eliot Prize, its contents neatly divided between home thoughts and abroad. It opens ‘In Belfast’, with the statue of ‘Victoria Regina steering the ship of the City Hall / in this first and last of her intense provinces’. This is already a city beginning to change, as tourists ‘are landing in airports / and filing out of ships’. This is to be welcomed: ‘We’ll recklessly set chairs in the streets and pray for the sun. / Diffuse the gene pool, confuse the local kings’ (‘Tourism’). The personal life can once again flourish: ‘I have love in the morning, a candle, a radio / and a child’s smile blooms over my fireplace’. But a search for something more spiritual also occurs. ‘It came to me the day I stole communion in the cathedral, / not knowing what to do and squinting wildly, / that I had need of a funeral’.The second part constitutes a poem sequence about her reactions to Japan. The first registers disorientation: ‘I saw / music as pulled elastic bands drums as the footprints of exacting gods’ (‘Goldfish’). In the title poem, she visits a temple containing stone babies, a graveyard for miscarriages ‘as stark as a bone field’, then Japan’s ‘greatest Buddha’: ‘Fall with me, he says, and you’ll be raised to the heights / of the roof of the biggest wooden building in the world’. And ‘To Imagine an Alphabet’ cleverly does just that – ‘There are stories in skeletons / And after the three fluid / Lines that are Mountain, the four / That are fire, Ice as a stroke / On the left side of Water - / Problem is Tree in a Box’.Introducing The State of the Prisons (2005), Morrissey noted ‘the liberation of going into another person’s consciousness and forgetting about my ‘I’ altogether’, and observed that ‘these poems are about prisons – sometimes physical, mostly psychological’ (Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Summer 2005). The latter remark certainly applies to the lengthy concluding poem, the voice of the 18th-century prison reformer John Howard, ‘Shuttling between nations like an evangelist. Or a Cook / Of the Unfortunate (as Burke put it). A man of great religious conviction and ultimately successful public works of reform, he comes to bitterly recognizes a personal failure, when his dissolute son ‘raved he had known neither father nor mother, / That I had twisted him with neglect’.By contrast, ‘Pilots’ is an engaging picture of the arrival of a school of pilot whales in Belfast Lough: ‘What had they come for? / From Carrickfergus to Helen’s Bay, birdwatchers with binoculars / held sway while the city sat empty’. The whales have an almost magical effect on the locals, ‘we took them as a gift’, and ‘Children sighed when the dived, then clapped as they rose / again, Christ-like and shining, from the sea’. They become ‘New islands in the water between Eden and Holywood’. Such quasi-Biblical allusions recur throughout Morrissey’s works. They persist in titles, or such phrases as ‘an any how Ash Wednesday cross’ and ‘the Angel of Anxiety’ (‘Contrail’). But just as noticeable are her literary allusions. When flying over a desert, she observes: ‘Auden’s face in age / looked like this place’. And ‘Driving Alone on a Snowy Evening’ gives us her version of Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘Stopping By Woods’.The predominant subject of Through the Square Window is personal: the conception, birth and early life of her baby son. In ‘Matter’, a brief history of human (mis)understanding about fertility leads from ancient times to the present: ‘No wonder olive oil, the pulp of a pomegranate, / honey, pine resin, mercury, beeswax, / pennyroyal, tobacco juice, arrowroot, tansy, / were burnt, brewed, inhaled, ingested, / inserted into the cervix’. How her unborn child was conceived still seems a mystery, ‘how you came to enter, / how you came to roll and hiccup and kick / against the windowless dark’. Then the child is addressed at the moment of birth, ‘- crook-shouldered, blue, believable, beyond me - / in a thunder of blood, in a flood-plain of intimate stains’ (‘Love, the nightwatch’).Other poems reflect upon children in various ways. ‘The Clangers’, for instance, charmingly summons up the quirky world of the eponymous television show (which must relate to the poet’s own childhood). But ‘The Innocents’ invokes the spooky 1961 Jack Clayton film about a governess obsessed by the children she’s left in charge of. Even more disturbing is ‘Fairground Music’, a similarly Edwardian tale though lower down the social scale, in which a pregnant young girl ‘riding all afternoon’ at a fair, aborts her 5-month-old foetus in ‘the privy’. Such anxious imaginings are balanced by far happier occasions, her son acquiring language: ‘It is entering via / the ear’s aqueduct, every / listening second’; ‘Longer please! – two out of fifty usable words / you employ to hold us hostage’ (‘Dash’). Sinead Morrissey is a poet capable of historical imaginings and domestic scenes, appreciative of worldwide cultures – but always firmly rooted in Northern Ireland.
Dr Jules Smith, 2011