Parallax

The following moon poem comes from a new collection called Parallax, from the Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey, published this summer by Carcanet. It is such a thoughtful poem I hope I might be forgiven for including it here:

1801

A beautiful cloudless morning. My toothache better.
William at work on The Pedlar. Miss Gell
left a basket of excellent lettuces; I shelled
our scarlet beans. Walked out after dinner for letters—
met a man who had once been a Captain begging for alms.

                                    *

The afternoon airy and warm. No letters. Came home
via the lake, which was near-turquoise
& startled by summer geese.
The soles on this year’s boots are getting worn.
Heard a tiny wounded yellow bird, sounding its alarm.

                                    *

William as pale as a basin, exhausted with altering…
I boiled up pears with cloves.
Such visited evenings are sharp with love
I almost said dear, look. Either moonlight on Grasmere

—like herrings!—

or the new moon holding the old moon in its arms.

This poem opens the collection, after an epigraph defining the overall title ‘parallax’ drawn from the OED. It’s not hard to think then that the volume, and the poem, should be concerned with differences in position of the point of observation, and how this affects the things we see. Observing an object from different points and measuring the tiny differences in angle is how we tell how far away something is: vital for astronomy, but also for our everyday lives. Humans’ depth perception works because we have two eyes of different positions able to look at the same object – and if you’ve ever tried to play ping pong with one eye closed you’ll appreciate its importance. Parallax, parallaxis or alteration in Greek, has some historical associations with Ireland: Leopold Bloom muses on the term in James Joyce’s Ulysses, while Dougal in Father Ted is given an important lesson about how some sheep appear small, but are in fact just far away. Maybe the title is there to remind us that things which loom large might just happen to be near to us – and things which appear small might be of undiscerned and surprising importance. And making these kinds of observations and judgements can indeed be seen as the purview of the poet.

Accordingly the first line of the poem does juxtapose things far and near. Associating as it does a beautiful cloudless morning and a toothache it throws together, with faint comic timing, a classic poetical observation and a (too?) intimate personal detail. The tone is allowed because we are overhearing Dorothy Wordsworth noting down observations in her journal. We know this because she says her brother William is at work on ‘The Pedlar’, a poem itself concerned with far and near and autobiographical reflection. But although quirky, the catholicity of Dorothy Wordsworth’s observations seem to be part of the point – to the extent (with their short sentences and shorthand &s) they make the poem we are reading live, they are an example for poets to follow. William’s weary corrections on a poem never completed to his satisfaction mean, for the time being at least, he misses the kind of things a poet might be expected to notice. The poem seems to subscribe to the idea that Dorothy Wordsworth was as much a poet as her brother, something any reader of her Journal (OUP, 1991, mentioned in the collection’s notes), would find convincing. ‘Parallax’ then implies the existence of a male and female perspective; perhaps in the relative attention given to small things, but also in the relative scrutiny their work has attracted (even by the devoted Dorothy Wordsworth herself).

All of which makes the title of the poem interesting. For any Irish poet to title a poem with a date implicitly associates it with other dated poems – from the rousing national ballad ‘Who fears to speak of ’Ninety-Eight’ to Yeats’s extraordinary trinity of poems ‘September 1913’, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, all of them concerned with sometime violent public events and the value of art. This poem’s date, 1801, is more readily associated with the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland, and all of the troubles that came after. Again though the poem ‘1801’ reminds us there were other things happening in 1801 – and that if we look again we might see them, in their ability to alter consciousness, as of equal, or even greater importance. If even William Wordsworth didn’t quite see this – ‘dear, look’ – we’ll have quite a bit of work ahead of us to do so. Reading this most carefully observed volume might be a good start.

So to the moon, the thing we are directed to observe. Pale as a basin, William Wordsworth is perhaps also a little moony, but presumably doesn’t actually see this moon as Dorothy does not in the end direct him: ‘I almost said dear, look’. We do, though, and twice: the surprising ‘herrings!’ I have to imagine as moonlight playing on the lake water (rather than ‘lapping with low sounds by the shore’ as in Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’), and the observation of the last line is so beautiful and surprising and yet inevitable it perhaps needs little comment. Still, O yes: as the nearest big thing to the earth, the moon attracts the largest maximum parallax of any celestial body. We can observe the moon from different ends of the earth, high above or on the horizon, and unlike for the faraway stars such angles of parallax are easily measurable, as much as one degree. Lunar parallax in particular not only tells how far away the moon is but something about ourselves. My Australian-born mother always remembers being surprised that it was not just a story but northern hemisphere moons actually do seem to have a man in them: to see him smiling in the southern hemisphere you have to turn upside down and look between your legs. So there really are more ways to see the moon than anything else in the heavens, especially if you see it in a lake; which indeed the moon’s position as an inveterate poetic symbol for so many things would suggest. It would be daft then to try to pin down the symbolism of the poem’s final line, which suggests something generative, cradling. Only that not simply concerning this moon but as a whole, both poem and collection certainly remind us to look at things differently. Poetry though is not just about our own observation: and Parallax is carefully framed and focussed to show us there is always more than one view.

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~ by thebicyclops on August 2, 2013.

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