On “Solstice”
Sinéad Morrissey

I’ve been trying to write “Solstice” for years. The whole thing was clear in my head: the New Age Community, the occasion, the special, cultish terms for things, the characters, what happens. But it wouldn’t come right. I tried it as a conventional poem, in various iterations, but the reality I wanted to communicate seemed too complete and too riven and too awful to fit into stanzaic form. I tried it as a short story but struggled with the imperative to say precisely what happened next.

“Solstice” is about a state of being in-between. Like the adolescent girl it concerns, whom the speaker immediately views as being trapped, I realised I also needed to tell the story in an in-between way, pitched awkwardly between poetry and prose.

In all these false starts, I’d always attempted tell this story from the point of view of the girl but had quickly become mired in rage. Her experience was too close to my own experience. When I realised I had to tell it in the voice of the Community Leader instead, the language immediately ran clear as spring water. Paradoxically, I could breathe.

I’ve just marked a student essay about dramatic monologue, in which speaking in another’s voice is described as an exercise in empathy. But the Community Leader in “Solstice” doesn’t deserve empathy. I’m not sure he even deserves understanding. What I really wanted to expose was how manipulation in such contexts––of reality, of language, and of people––works.

Cults are so frightening because of the insidious way their discourses short-circuit rational thought. They transgress against an individual’s private physical and psychological space. They whisper in your ear, then get inside your head and take over.

All unreliable narratives are exercises in double-speak. The jury is out on the extent to which the Community Leader is self-aware enough to realise he’s engaged in a concerted strategy of abuse. But whether he believes what he’s saying or not, the reader is not expected to comply with any of his assertions. There’s supposed to be a gap, which grows as the text unfolds. So that by the time he says “I know she knows what she’s doing” the readers knows he knows nothing of the sort.

First-person narrative is the most intimate form of address, which is why it’s so powerful, if also claustrophobic, and it works on the premise of reader-speaker identification. The words of a first-person narrative are like a conductor, linking us directly to the subjectivity of another. They have an electric crackle.

Because I have written “Solstice” in first-person narrative, in the voice of a perpetrator of harm, reader-speaker connectivity deliberately gets severed. Or at least I hope it does. But there’s a risk because I don’t know, ultimately, if that severing happens or not. Because I can’t, ultimately, control a reader’s reaction to anything.

When Jonathan Swift published A Modest Proposal in 1729, there was a risk some readers might take him at his word. There was an even smaller risk that some readers would agree with him. But the reward of deploying blistering irony outweighed the risk.

The reward of deploying blistering irony is that it can make things clearer, more exposed, more shocking, worse. Because you undo a position from the inside out, you create a self-detonating text.

Sinéad Morrissey is the author of six poetry collections, with a new UK Selected, Found Architecture, published by Carcanet this year. Her awards include first prize in the UK National Poetry Competition, a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the E M Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Both Through the Square Window and Parallax received the Irish Times Poetry Prize. She was the winner of the TS Eliot Prize in 2013 and of the Forward Prize in 2017. In 2020 she was awarded the European Poet of Freedom Award for her collection, On Balance, translated into Polish by Magdalena Heydel. She is Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts at Newcastle University.

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