Here we are, just in time for Easter! I’ve been stuck in a bit of a writing rut recently, mainly because I’ve been trying to write something with a form. Pru’s work has shown me that it can be done, but as she’s made it look so effortless in ‘Bitterlich’ (below), I’m going to admit defeat! It’s also good to be reminded of the possibilities that the wider arts offer us in our writing. These influences shine through in Pru’s own work, and in her reading of Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax. Thanks for this, Pru – it’s come at just the right time for me.
I am a reasonably experienced but erratic poet. I have had two pamphlets published: All Aboard the Moving Staircase, Vane Women Press 2004, The Kraków Egg, Arrowhead Press, 2009 and poems in several magazines. The reason for the erratic epithet is that, until recently, I was sole carer for my parents, who lived with me until their deaths. I, therefore, had priorities other than my own need to write poetry. Now I want to get on with it and have plenty of work finished (?), half-finished, nowhere near finished and popping up unlooked for all the time. As they do.
Living, as I do, in a very rural and somewhat isolated part of the North Pennines, there is limited inspiration, encouragement or sense to be derived from talking to my dog or the occasional sheep. A move to the fine arts city of Newcastle is the plan.
Before becoming a carer I had always worked in the arts sector, in theatre and opera and I was married to a painter, so artsy fartsy more or less sums me up. I am especially fascinated by the inter-action of the arts and by their influence on us (or do I mean me) in every day activities:
Oh she will set the pace and fix the key
and she will calculate the masque
and side-step in a minor chord
and he will try and he will plead
and he will sigh and he will weep
and he will wear his heart on sleeve
but she will stop him in mid-flow
and gently mock and slowly weave
her unrelenting notes through his
until his dance of death is done
his bitter tears are spilled and gone
and hers will be the final words
and these will echo through the hours
and set the rhythm and the rhyme
and measure carefully our time.
(after Man Ray)
Why do you give me an iron
for my birthday?
So I can smoothe out the flaws
in your personality
or just your shirts?
Let me give you this one
in return, my love,
it might impress you, hurt a little,
nail your backbone,
leave its mark.
Pru Kitching On Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax
One of the poets who has particularly influenced me is Sinéad Morrissey. I started reading her work –Through the Square Window (2009) and Between Here and There (2002) – in preparation for an Arvon course which she was teaching with Michael Laskey in 2010. When Parallax came out in 2013, winning the T.S. Eliot Prize, it was an obvious book for me to go for.
First off, I have to admit that I didn’t have a clue what the word ‘parallax’ meant and deliberately read the collection with this ignorance intact to see whether the poems would give me an insight. They did. They seemed, to me, to be an extension and confirmation of what had come across in her previous work. ‘That nothing is but what is not’. That what we see is not always what we ‘get’. That what we understand is not always what we have been looking at.
Sinéad Morrissey’s definition of ‘Parallax’ appears at the beginning of the collection: ‘Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual chance (or difference) of position of the point of observation’.
I’m not sure I would have been any the wiser for having read this definition before I read the poems but it doesn’t matter. The poetry talks to us about what or who is unseen, unknown, left out of an image which has captured just one moment and pinned it down as if there is no more. Taking as her starting point, a visual image, whether a photograph, a painting or a still from a film, she interprets that image, sometimes in an intensely personal way, sometimes more dispassionately, and shows us what is behind the scene, has just passed out of view, has not yet come into view. Or, rather, what might be … it all depends on how you look at it.
One of my own very deep-rooted interests is the way in which various art forms inter-act with, impact upon and both parallel and contrast with each other and I have chosen three poems in which Sinéad Morrissey uses three different art forms to illustrate her main theme in the collection: film, music and painting.
A Matter of Life and Death, is a long poem, in which she parallels the Powell and Pressburger film, and in particular the scene in which David Niven goes up the long escalator through the clouds and into heaven, with her experiences of going into a long and very difficult labour, not long after her grandmother had died.
Shostakovitch is one of several poems about the former Soviet Union and the ‘parallax’ element in this poem is the way in which she is able to convey in writing a musical ‘image’ which is not what it seems at first. That, far from subscribing to Stalin’s view of what was and was not ‘acceptable’ Soviet music, Shostakovitch was able at one and the same time both to appear to tow the line and gain approval but also subvert his music in such a way that only the most sophisticated of hearers, which Stalin was not, would understand.
Fur takes a look at Hans Holbein’s portrait ‘The Ambassadors’.
I will single out Fur because I already knew the image – well, it is rather famous– and because, having been married to a painter, paintings are of particular interest to me. What is especially intriguing about poetry which responds to a painting, is that one is already looking at something which has been interpreted creatively. It’s both exciting and a bit cheeky, maybe, to add a second layer of imaginative thinking. But then, this is what ‘parallax’ is about …
At first seeing, the Holbein painting is simply a portrait of two young men, apparently ambassadors, looking suitably serious and ambassadorial but leaning rather nonchalantly on a table. Holbein has added to this the undertones of his age: the political implications of being a flatterer, the fact that one is dressed more sumptuously than the other, though both wear the fur of the poem’s title, the symbolic accoutrements (or props?) relating to travel and exploration, astronomy, music and discord (broken instruments) and, above all the human skull so distorted that it can only be seen as such by looking at it from a different angle (parallax).
There it is, fixed, and what Sinéad Morrissey does is paint another picture, the one which is yet to come. Of early and painful death, of seeing, in the distorted image of the skull an oblique take on death, which she echoes in the way she has formed the poem:
‘… or an infection set into the shoulder joint
might carry them off, in a matter of
hours, at any instant –
Too obvious a touch
to set the white skull straight. Better
to paint it as something other: …’