Language in its Given State: Review of Sinéad Morrissey at Durham Book Festival

sinead morriseyThe Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey was this year’s Durham Book Festival laureate, sharing her work with the public and students, and writing a new poem inspired by her time in Durham. In her final reading of the Festival, Morrissey’s selection of poems saw her take on different voices, from Sherlock Holmes to a character in Vanity Fair to her coal mining grandfather. Emily Van Houten listened in.

Sinéad Morrissey walked to the podium with a marked, quiet ferociousness, evidence of the well-versed teacher (pardon the pun) she is, and posed with two sparsely marked volumes of her own work.

To begin, she recited neatly combed lines from a poem about the amount of beauty it might require to push a single ship out to sea rather than Helen of Troy’s one thousand – what’s called a millihelen. The literal ship in Morrissey’s work moves sluggishly, taking “a rendered while” to fully leave the onlookers behind. When the boat had left, we heard more of the composition that made Morrissey the inaugural Poet Laureate of Belfast. Her lyrical letter, written to the invented William Dobbin from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, quieted the listeners as her character’s voice (Amelia Sedley, of the same novel) eased from the refined greetings into pointed regrets about her own unthoughtful dismissal of the man who had loved her for ten years.

Each word and line and stanza is crocheted into an historical narrative

It was in the stilled setting of the Palace Green Library that Morrissey pastorally laid her poems out for us. They varied in theme and topic; some pieces came from Parallax (2013), which won the T.S. Eliot Prize, and others came from Through the Square Window (2009), or were recently written. Years of study and refinement have made Morrissey a master craftswoman; each word and line and stanza is crocheted into an historical narrative, both able to stand alone as its own piece, but self-aware of the past in its voice and content.

Further, Morrissey’s delivery was impressive. Her careful reticence paused the poems in a striking rhythm: slow but purposeful, gracefully spoken but with no lack of command over each word. Morrissey eased over thickly webbed lines about “Receiving the Dead”, adapting Sherlock Holmes’ voice to recall events in a professorial way, listening to souls who, “wholly illiterate…are equivalent to language in its given state”.

Gently laughing, Morrissey noted the listeners’ silence in between poems. But the quiet moments were us transitioning – moving through years or windows or genders or lighthouses. Each poem needed that bright awe from us, to be ready. Morrissey nudged us forward to her final poem, the one commissioned for Durham Book Festival.

Men of the Mine, by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Men of the Mine, by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“The Collier” is, of course, about the North. Durham’s now abandoned coal mines inspired Morrissey to write of the region’s ancestral legacy. The history of the colliers around North East England is not a distant one; Stephen Regan, when introducing Morrissey, noted that schoolchildren around the region can recall stories from their grandfathers’ time down in the black pits, with pride or remorse about the years spent drawing coal from the earth. The lines fall on the ear of the listener as steady hammering, though not as morose as a clanging beat could be. Morrissey drew crisp recollections of her grandfather, a collier himself, worn and aging faster than normal from his decades of work. Each of the six stanzas moves and pushes time forward and backward, remembering the mining work itself, but also Morrissey’s grandfather’s marriage and quirky interests. These inform the last stanza, written to a racing pigeon – a hobby her grandfather loved, but never participated in.

With each poem, then, as with each of her books, it is vital to listen to Morrissey without pretense. The content, the lines, and the readers each hold their own terms. That is the joy of reading and especially listening to Morrissey, and what makes her an ideal laureate and representative of poetry for both Belfast and the Durham Book Festival.

Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.


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