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On Balance poetry review – an imagination that never closes

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Sinead Morrissey’s Forward-winning collection is a breathtaking feat, blending fiction, memoir and history

Sinead Morrissey’s On Balance, which has just won this year’s Forward prize, is a collection that keeps extending itself and that shares many of the satisfactions of fiction, memoir and history (there is an especially arresting poem about a model of Napoleon’s horse, another fine poem about the aviator Lilian Bland and an astounding poem based on a garish photograph of tsarist Russia). Even the poems that cross the finishing line with a flourish are open-ended, leaving one with the sense that there will always be more to say, and this is because Morrissey is possessed of her own invigorating brand of Irish fluency and an imagination that never closes.

On the subject of balance – there is always the likelihood that the world is about to tilt. The Millihelen (the poem that launches the collection) means (I had to look it up) “a unit measure of pulchritude, corresponding to the amount of beauty required to launch one ship”. A natural performer on the page, Morrissey holds us here with a feat of suspension, of literary engineering. This is a phenomenal performance: a single sentence, no full stops, a steady push out into the water – I take liberties in interrupting its flow to lift out these lines:

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