Fran Brearton enjoys a deft exploration of the artificiality of art in framing and containing its subject
At the start of Sinéad Morrissey's brilliant, Forward prize-shortlisted fifth collection, she defines its title as: "Parallax (Astron.) Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation." It's a fertile subject for a book that reveals an interest in parallax in all its multiple senses – photographic, philosophical, political. In photography, for instance, parallax is "the incorrect framing of an image due to the differing positions of the viewfinder and the lens" (OED). Morrissey, who has always been concerned with what lies "between here and there", the visible and invisible, with the artificiality of art in framing and containing its subject, exploits the potential inherent in this not immediately promising technical problem with consummate skill. Her previous collection, Through the Square Window, reimagined the window on to the world familiar from TV's Play School; here, films, paintings, maps, and particularly photographs – of "the different people who lived in sepia -/ more buttoned, colder" ("A Lie") – prompt reflections on perception and deception, what can and can't be captured within the frame of the poem, what the truth leaves out.
In "Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg", Morrissey's own verbal pictures recognise that to observe the image may be "to cast the viewer out/ onto the no-man's-land/ of her own estate"; the self is altered by what it sees, and vice versa. More sinisterly, in "The Doctors", "the camera's/ inherent generosity of outlook" in Soviet Russia, its telling "the truth", is countered by "scissors,/ nail files, ink and sellotape". The "party operatives" thus "vanished" by this ruthless editing are victims of an "addictive … urge to utter a language/ both singular and clean". The "eradication/ of the accidental" – that which, in the Paul Muldoon phrase quoted as epigraph to the poem, is "blurted … out like a Polaroid" – is the progressive creation of a lie; but it is also, disturbingly, the dark side of an artistic process, the crafting and shaping of a language with its own "power to transform".
In Morrissey's surface clarity of style and clean lines, there's more going on than first meets the eye: "should anyone be missed" in this doctoring of images, "turning up in textbooks before the grave extent/ of their transgression's been established", they will be blacked out by "girls and boys, all trained/ in proper parlance, their fingers stained". She evokes the history of Soviet Russia indirectly: the missing, the graves, the power of the establishment, the guilt of stained hands. Sometimes pushing the frame to its limits, in the rich, longer lines of "A Matter of Life and Death", sometimes working through taut, formal stanzas aware of what they must omit, or venturing into shape poems (as in "The Eye of the Needle"), the collection formally (one might say sculpturally) enacts the theme it propounds, craftily shifting both the point of observation and the shape of the object/poem itself.
"Too obvious a touch", she writes of Holbein's The Ambassadors, "to set the white skull straight. Better to paint it as something other" ("Fur"). In that painting, the skull in the foreground is distorted – "driftwood/ upended by magic … an improbable boomerang" – unless viewed from a particular angle. Morrissey's own youthful experiences, wonderfully captured in "The Party Bazaar" (her parents were Communist party members in Northern Ireland), render her suspicious of what looks "singular and clean"; they set her own perceptions fruitfully aslant. In "The Party Bazaar" (which, Babushka dolls and "anti-Mrs Thatcher paraphernalia" aside, looks rather like an Ulster church bazaar with knitwear and traybakes), she and her brother are "handed pink and white posters/ of Peace & Détente to decorate the room". "It's trickier than we thought/ to stick them straight", she observes, "so secretly we give up."
If Morrissey's language is itself trickier than we might think, the figurative definition of parallax is suggestive too: seeing "wrongly, or in a distorted way". In the 1970s, Derek Mahon, in "Ecclesiastes", parodied an entrenched political vision in Northern Ireland that worked on the principle of "close one eye and be king". It's unsurprising, given the context of Morrissey's work, that she and others of her generation are drawn to multiple perspectives, to an understanding, beautifully and subtly articulated through this book, of a "parallax view" in which the object cannot be fixed and where no single vantage point prevails. Parallax once meant change, alteration, and alternation: Morrissey is Belfast's laureate for a new era, where alternation is embedded in political agreements that have altered the political and cultural landscape of Northern Ireland; she is also at times its conscience, seeing, like Hogg, "the stark potential/ of tarnished water".
Parallax is something of a treasure trove, the visual and aural equivalent of a child's "feely-bag". From an 18th‑century jigsaw map, to electroplating, to the mutoscope, the poet's enthusiasms are infectious and they cohere in totally unexpected ways. "Take a parallax view" may not have entered social or political discourse yet, nor (thankfully) has it reached management-speak; but Morrissey's poetic framings and exposures of author, reader/viewer, and object in dynamic and angular relation to each other make her a compelling advocate, and exemplary practitioner, of both seeing and doing things differently.