Winning the TS Eliot Prize is hardly a matter of life and death. But the film of that name inspired Sinéad Morrissey to pen a collection which finally secured the UK’s most prestigious poetry prize for Belfast’s first poet laureate.
On Monday, the Poetry Book Society (PBS) announced that Dr Morrissey, previously shortlisted on three occasions, had won the most lucrative award in British poetry for Parallax, a collection exploring the artificiality of art.
Her poem, “A Matter of Life and Death”, was inspired by the 1946 film, which she saw while going into labour with her first child.
The poem captures David Niven, who plays the RAF pilot who bails out of his burning plane, ascending on a magical marble escalator on his way to heaven. The film’s theme was paralleled by her own experience of a grandmother dying just before her baby was born.
Described as a “dazzling talent”, who “wouldn't have appeared out of place among Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury set” with her “blue-stocking” look, Dr Morrissey, 41, was appointed Belfast’s inaugural poet laureate last Summer.
Dr Morrissey is Reader in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast and her TS Eliot victory is a sign of the depth of talent Northern Ireland enjoys in poetry following Heaney’s death last Summer.
The themes explored in Parallax include her childhood growing up in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, to card-carrying Communist parents. A poem called The Doctors reflects on the practice of doctoring photographs to remove enemies of the Soviet regime under Stalin.
The ground-breaking images of Belfast’s slums by the Edwardian photographer Alexander Robert Hogg, also provided inspiration.
Ian Duhig, chair of judges, said: “In a year of brilliantly themed collections, the judges were unanimous in choosing Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax as the winner. Politically, historically and personally ambitious, expressed in beautifully turned language, her book is as many-angled and any-angled as its title suggests.”
Dr Morrissey was previously nominated for her collections Between Here and There (2002); The State of the Prisons (2005) and Through the Square Window (2009). Parallax was also shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection.
Dr Morrissey, who lives in Belfast with her American husband and their two children, collected the £15,000 prize at the ceremony held in the Courtyard of the Wallace Collection. The nine shortlisted poets, including the 90 year-old Dannie Abse, received cheques for £1,000.
Previous winners of the TS Eliot prize, set up in 1993 to recognise the author of the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland each year, include Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Last year Sharon Olds won for Stage’s Leap, a collection exploring her husband’s adultery.
Dr Morrissey has previously won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award and the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize. Her poem Through The Square Window was awarded first prize in the UK National Poetry Competition.
Detailing her research for Parallax, Dr Morrissey told the Irish Times: “I pored through archives at the Ulster Hall. I became passionately interested in early photography and how it acted as a vehicle for social change. Alexander Robert Hogg’s images, for example, would have been viewed by upper-class women; it would have been the first time in history that they were directly confronted with the reality of Belfast's slums. I was also fascinated by photography presenting itself as this new medium that would always portray the truth.”
Poem from Parallax: Home Birth
The night your sister was born in the living-room
you lay on your bed, upstairs, unwaking,
Cryptosporidium frothing and flourishing
through the ransacked terraces of your small intestine
so that, come morning, you, your bedding, me,
the midwife even, had to be stripped and washed.
Your father lifted you up like a torch
and carried you off to the hospital.
You came back days later, pale and feverish,
and visited us in the bedroom in your father’s arms.
You turned your head to take her in: this black-haired,
tiny, yellow person who’d happened while you slept.
And you were the white dot of the television, vanishing–
vanishing– just before the screen goes dark.
This poem is from Parallax, published by Carcanet