I’m reading On Balance, the newest collection by poet Sinead Morrissey, and for some odd reason, I keep being reminded of Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not that Morrissey’s collection is influenced by other poets who wrote about the bridge—Hart Crane, Jack Kerouac, and Marianne Moore among them. It’s more that the poems of this collection grapple with technology, the wonders technology brings, and the tradeoffs that technology always demands. I’m reminded, too, of the French Impressionist painters like Renoir who painted pastoral scenes with railway bridges and trains in the background (or foreground).
Morrissey lives in Belfast. Possibly the most famous ship ever constructed in the famous shipyards there was the Titanic, so it’s not a surprise to find the first poem (and the first about technology) in On Balance is about the doomed ship. Specifically, “The Millihelen” focuses on the moment the ship travels down the slipway into the water. It represents a marvelous feat of human engineering, and one that will eventually cost the lives of more than 1,500 people. Technology has its price.
The poems may address the telegraph, the cinema, coal mining, war, and even color photographs of tsarist Russia, but Morrissey is always reminding us of technology and its costs, and the disequilibrium it can cause with the natural world. This is true even for something like a scientific expedition to Greenland, possible only because of technology, which is fully represented by the participants—a geologist, a photographer, an artist, a marine biologist, and an archaeologist. In a series of poems under the general title of “Whitelessness,” Morrissey gives each participant a soliloquy.
This is the first in that series, “The Geologist”:
The rocks on Greenland are the oldest on Earth.
This one’s a fossilised algal mat; this one
contains the ridges of human teeth:
some early Paleolithic adolescent caught
grinning at the moment of death
in a stone photograph. We manoeuvre
them down to the beach on a stretcher.
Ochres and greys and blacks
ricochet back and forth across the massif,
as denuded of white as the West of Ireland,
while the shed ice bobs in the bay
begging smaller and smaller comparisons—
lozenges dissolving visibly on the tongue;
droplets of fat on broth. If it’s life
that controls the geological machinery
of the planet, rather than the other way round,
we are neither new, nor tragic. This came
to me one morning as I sorted out my cabin
and the hundreds of marathon runners
in my brain stopped and changed direction.
The italicized words in the poem are they key, and Morrissey plays two ideas almost in reverse of what might be expected. “Life” is what brings technology; “the geological machinery” actually represents the natural world. She is perhaps suggesting here that we see technology as the natural thing, and nature as something to be controlled and regulated.
Morrissey has published five other poetry collections: There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996); Between Here and There (2002); State of the Prisons (2005); Through the Square Window (2010); and Parallax: And Selected Poems (2015), which won the T.S. Eliot Prize. On Balance won the Forward Prize for poetry earlier this year. She received her B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Trinity College Dublin, and was named Belfast’s first poet laureate in 2014.
On Balance is not a screed against technology. But it is a reminder that, like Prometheus and his theft of fire, technology brings the good, the bad, and the unexpected.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish