Statement of Prejudice: I’m a big fan of Morrissey. I loved Through A Square Window, found the curious, provocative and deeply humane voice great fun to listen to. She’s one of the best poets at work in the UK today and I have high hopes for Parallax.
Reality: It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as well-wrought and tightly bound formally and thematically as Parallax. Which is a great big way of saying it’s bloody enjoyable to read. Imagine! The poems talk to each other, the book knows where it wants to lead you, and it does so with wit, generosity and imagination.
As the book explicitly states in its epigram, Parallax is concerned with ways of seeing things from multiple perspectives, which as a foundational principle might not seem all that ground breaking, but SM explores it so fruitfully the recurring theme is barely noticeable, and thoroughly rewards repeated and close reading.
Plus on a totally surface they’re exciting imaginative playgrounds, taking unusual and expected narrative twists without losing their emotional freight or narrative logic. Take one of the collection’s finest pieces, “A Day’s Blindness”:
He stood up to carry his plate and cup
to the sink and couldn’t see.
He sat back down. The clocks
went on consuming Saturday.
The poem conveys simply and directly the moment of sudden, irreparable panic. The poem’s close, a characteristically complex and extended single sentence runs:
He sat on at the table,
rolling crumbs beneath his thumbs
and waiting, either for what was taken
to be handed back –
the fridge, the kettle, his cuff-linked shirt –
or for the kleptomaniac visitor
he couldn’t shut out
to be done with it, finally,
and sever the link –
to haul him up out of his chair,
into the hall, and through the brown door
to a garden ruined with hooves
and there would be
horses set loose from the Bond Yard
where his father worked
in the Hungry Thirties,
their coats engrained with soot
and their heads encased in steam,
Good god almighty that’s the stuff. The powerful emotional dynamics, the deeply empathetic narrative voice and nightmarish close aside, the music of this passage is downright inspired. Read it aloud if you’re somewhere convenient. There are so many small, careful touches that connect each line to another, that make the passage a sumptuous sonic unity. I’m getting carried away and can only partly blame it on too many cups of tea. “A Day’s Blindness” has a fairly obvious link to the book’s core, but it wears it lightly, and its familial concerns bind it up with much of Parallax.
Speaking of which, the series of poems explicitly about the poet’s own family, a pretty well-trodden genre for lyric poets, just about manages to toe the line between delivering a very personal and privately understood experience and admitting the reader into its broader significance. Or, SM knows you’re not all that interested in the charming foibles of her offspring. The series “Daughter” and the short lyric “Lighthouse” are both beautifully rendered portraits of family life in all its dys/function and carefully examined essays into the psychology of childhood. How do children cope with a world they don’t quite understand? Not totally unlike how grown-ups do. Her daughter ‘talks all day – / her toys, her toes,/ her pictures, her minutely/ attenuated hierarchy/ of friends – / like a businessman/ on the last train home/ after one too many espressos,/ selling you his dream.’ Her son, struggling to sleep, and a lighthouse outside his window, ‘the two of them partly curtained, partly seen,/ upheld in a sort of boy-talk conversation/ no one else can hear. That private place, it answers,/ with birds and slatted windows – I’ve been there.’ There is beautifully worked ambiguity in the closing line about whether it is mother or lighthouse speaking that ties together the poem’s concerns, builds a powerful hub of emotional information.
The book is also keenly aware of (literal and figurative) perceptions of women, and chooses to put Parallax’s discussions thereof in a historical context – the repeated insinuation being something along the lines of this is not a new problem and we’re far from fixing it. In “The Doctors” and “Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg”, women are explicitly (in the former) and implicitly (in the latter) erased from photographs; what should be immutable proofs are either tampered with by state-sponsored ‘black balloons [over women’s faces]’ or simply not of interest. “Display” holds in balance the ‘brusquely charmed’ tone of the male commentator, the marginally unsettling motto of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty (‘movement is life’), the working men ‘all around the periphery […] mostly they just look, quietly and sharply focused,/ like eyeing up the horses at a racecourse, but with much more choice’, and the projected declaration from narrator to the women themselves, ‘To hell with it, they may as well be saying […] I’ve got the fresh-air-body they promised me. Twist. Its electricity.’ The deeply complex power struggles at play are given full freedom of expression, and the poem withholds explicit judgement on the women at the centre of it all, whose own opinions are guessed-at and simplistic, ‘for movement is life and they are keeping moving.’ But not far beneath the surface is recognition of the truly revolutionary nature of what at the time was perceived with the patronising ‘to them belongs the future!’
For if there is one tool at SM’s disposal that sets her apart it is her ability to write intricately fashioned poems that still have room for a sense of humour. This is no trifle. THIS IS DEADLY FUCKING SERIOUS. But for real, a sense of humour in the right hands is a shiv to stick into the cracks of conventional thought, and SM knows the pressure points. Take “The High Window”. It’s a poem written in a Chandler-y drawl, ‘but from the blonde’s perspective’, which turns the pulpy male gaze back on Marlowe, ‘the type of man who gives/ a girl offence by offering advice about her gloves/ or hair or make-up uninvited.’ The punchline is far too glorious to spoil.
And all this without mentioning “A Matter of Life And Death”, which got me proper choked up, the unbelievable precision of “Shadows”, “Shostakovich”: ‘In all my praise and plainsong I wrote down/ the sound of a man’s boots from behind the mountain’, the wonderfully vulnerable “Fool’s Gold”… it has depth. It has range. It has an emotional swoop and swell and shape that make it above all else a Damn Good Book. An incredible collection of poetry, but also something genuinely worth writing home about. The Forward Prize winner is announced later today, and while I’ve yet to read either Glyn Maxwell or Rebecca Goss’ collections, Parallax is far stronger than either Polley’s commendable The Havocs or MSR’s Drysalter, and SM should be gravely disappointed to take anything less than the win.
Tl;dr: Buy it yesterday.