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This review is taken from PN Review 165, Volume 32 Number 1, September - October 2005.

A STRANGER AND A PILGRIM SINÉAD MORRISSEY, The State of the Prisons (Carcanet) £6.95

Sinéad Morrissey's third collection takes its title from the writings of the prison reformer John Howard. Her last long poem is about his life and work and it is written in his voice, the zealous, frequently pompous and unwittingly amusing voice of an eighteenth-century public figure. The monologue describes the ambiguity between his righteous public life, his pity and his fury at conditions for felons, and his private life, his inadequate fathering of a boy who is taken on by a servant, visits brothels and contracts venereal disease. The immediate detail is seen in sharp focus, and in a language which dares to parody, as well as to be true and poetic.

Gaol fever, the pox, the flux, the pestilence

Raged down there. Later they claimed I was cloaked in righteousness -
I ascribe my immunity to God's purpose and shallow breathing.

But using Howard's life and his voice as a screen yields a rich harvest in other ways. The age of prison reform is the age of strong zealots, whose will and idealism knew no limits, yet whose humanism was abstract. Howard's voice allows the poet to present this psychological and social conundrum flatly, without external judgement. Howard stands for reform, pity, modernity in the justice system - and yet at the heart of his tale is a mad child 'twisted with neglect'. This man, trapped by his own vision, lays out the full horror of his life's choice, ...


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