Interesting to read Carol Rumens’s comments on Sinéad Morrissey’s poem, Through the Square Window (you can read its full text at the link), which has won this year’s UK National Poetry Competition.
When I first heard that Sinéad Morrissey had won the competition, I was very pleased, as I had really enjoyed her last collection, The State of the Prisons, one of my favourites from 2006 when I read it.
But when I first read this winning poem, I was less sure. Is it any good? Carol Rumens doesn’t really think so. I glanced through the comments after her post but got fed up very quickly – too much inane stuff.
So I’ve read it a few times. One of the things people seemed stuck over was the final image of the narrator waking with a cork stuffed in her mouth, and it bewildered me at first. But now I have an idea.
The poem is about death and, more to the point, it’s about how death seeks to inhabit us and threaten us. The dead arrive, in a dream, at N’s house “to wash the windows”. Clouds also gather, and at times the dead and the clouds appear practically synonymous. They threaten her baby son, but he is untroubled by the battering on the window. Then they go away, but leave behind “a density in the room,” which makes breathing (in the dream) difficult. It’s as if water from the clouds (which are the bringers of death) has flooded the room. But then N wakes up with this cork in her mouth “like a herbalist’s cure for dropsy.”
Dropsy is excess fluid in the body. One old superstition was that a toad should be reduced to ashes and the ashes bottled, but no other element should be allowed to mingle with those pure ashes. The ashes would be taken by the patient three times a day. So the narrator is the remedy or, more accurately, the superstitious attempt to ward off this growth of water in the body, this incremental death. But I think that the dead have indeed breached the defences of the room. They’ve gained ground, and no mere superstition is going to hold them back forever.
The title contains an image of innocence, as it references a UK television programme for young children. What looks like a “shining exterior” (S5 L1) is actually the dead “sluicing and battering and paring back.” (S4 L3) While the baby is indeed “inured” (S4 L2) from reality, the narrator certainly isn’t, and the closing image is one of conscious horror – not a dummy/pacifier, but a cork and a mouth “stopper-bottled.”
As far as craft goes, I have several issues with the poem, some of which mirror Carol Rumens’s reaction:
S1 L3 – the final “with” is surely unnecessary.
S2 – I can’t fathom the reason for the comparison with Delft. The poem doesn’t revisit the town and I can’t see how it illuminates the image of stacked clouds in Lough.
S3 L2 – the line-break on “his” is odd. What’s the point of breaking the phrase there?
S5 L2 – I just don’t understand this image of the rag in teeth “like a conjuror”, mainly because I can’t remember ever seeing a conjuror with a rag in his/her teeth. But maybe Sinéad Morrissey has done!
S8 – Although I can (I think) make sense of the final image, it seems rather contrived. It’s a nightmarish vision, like a bad dream that continues into waking life, and I see why the water image beneath the skin is relevant, as death has also crept in. It’s a jolt of an image, it made me think, it was surprising, but it feels contrived nonetheless, something labouring to fit the demands of the poem rather than emerging naturally from it.
So I’m in two minds about the poem. I’m still glad that Sinéad Morrissey won, as I like her stuff a lot. I think the poem has a definite appeal. But a winner?
(by the way, no NaPoWriMo 'thread of the day' today. This instead!)