Inquisition Lane, by Matthew Sweeney; That Which is Suddenly Precious, by Dermot Bolger
Poetry reviews: From a very strange house to a familiar city
Matthew Sweeney’s Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe, £9.95) offers more of the skewed fables for which he is best known, but it also reads as a transitional collection.
Sweeney remains a poet of nouns and the unlikely relations between them: he likes to take recognisable objects and piece them together in ways that do little to reassure the reader. The Igloo begins:
Outside the igloo he waited
for an invitation to come inside.
There was no knocker, no doorbell.
He coughed, there was no reply.
When the protagonist finds “a bowl with a cover on it”, it is little surprise that it contains “dried meat” or that “he grabbed a chunk and tore at it with his teeth”. What may be a little more surprising is that the man immediately clocked it as “reindeer”, and “devoured all that was in the bowl/ and went looking for some more”. Who is this character? As usual, Sweeney strands us, in the igloo, with no further revelation.
At his confident best, Sweeney is irrepressibly, blackly comic, and there is cruel delight in the way he drifts the reader through his weird scenes, like a gourmet chef who reveals his ingredients only after the plate has been cleared: “I picture you laughing”, he writes in Ice Sculpture, “then directing the singing to include a / hymn to a snail, that small fellow who/ brings his home with him – easily shown/ in ice. And maybe an encore to a frog/ who sits on a plate, waiting to dance.”
This poem seems to emerge from the same place as The Ice Hotel in Sanctuary (2004), which found its speaker holed up with a sculptor named Thor, saying “I didn’t want to go home,/ but I went”.
Sweeney has brought us to these places before and, after more than a dozen books, it is harder for him to pull rabbits (or a snail, or a frog) out of the everyday hats he likes to present to his readers. In his first book, A Dream of Maps (1981), readers met, among other dwellings, a “house of cards” with “walls thick as solitude”; in A Round House (1983), the house of its title was joined by The Ideal House (“with a beard that cats climb”), while later books brought The Shadow Home (“Which of the two is the shadow home?”) and the grave/allotment of The Transformed House.
These dream houses figure frequently in his work, and Inquisition Lane begins with another sinister sketch: “The dream house was yellow/ and had no chimneys”. If Sweeney’s houses are usually animated by an encounter or a figure, then this Dream House does suggest a departure, because the last line of the poem flatly declares: “There was no one living there.”
The gloomier tone established in this poem is also present in another of this book’s departures, a series of straightforward if grouchily ruminative elegies. Writing, in Co-Author, about his old friend, and long-time Berlin resident John Hartley Williams, Sweeney’s line, “we had good times together”, echoes WS Graham’s wonderful Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch (“I loved him and we had/ Terrible times together”). Co-Author is still clearly the product of Sweeney’s distinctive imaginative world, but its disorienting images seem to bear a more obvious metaphoric relationship to the speaker’s articulate grief for his subject:
Big man, brother, co-author, friend
I’ve employed a magician who will bring
you back as the Heine-quoting parrot
in our novel, possibly your favourite
character. You’ll have to live with me
and this time you’ll quote your own lines.
Matthew Sweeney published his first books with Raven Arts Press, Dermot Bolger’s first foray into the world of publishing. It was also where Bolger would initially publish some of the poems now gathered in That Which is Suddenly Precious: New and Selected Poems (New Island, €14.95).
Like Sweeney, Bolger is a member of Aosdána who has combined creative work with teaching, editing, translation and collaborations, also developing a considerable reputation as a playwright and novelist.
Bolger’s poems are often autobiographical: each poem in the book is dated and they testify to a well-lived life. Good-humoured and observant, they rarely depart from what the reader might expect: even when they adopt the voice of, say, a Ronanstown teenager, or Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, or remember the children killed in 1916, they reflect the world and feelings and a politics which Bolger’s readers will recognise.
Reassuringly straightforward, they stay close to the city of which he has become a kind of unofficial laureate, a city whose street names dot these pages. The Percent for Art project Night and Day (2008) tracked 24 hours in south Co Dublin in poems originally posted on gable ends in the areas they report on, and Passing Certain Housing Estates imagines, with suitably dark wit, the funeral of a cowboy developer in terms of corners cut:
We will carry his oak coffin on our shoulders
In a silent procession through every estate
Where he ignored byelaws and left roads incomplete.
We shall dig his grave to half its legal depth
And lower his casket as far down as it will fit,
Promising to return later and complete the task.
Music, and traditional music especially, is a defining subject for Bolger, as it has been for contemporaries such as Ciaran Carson and the late Michael Donaghy. Typically, it is the places where it is played that hold Bolger’s attention, “amid a labyrinth of North Dublin streets with red-brick terraces,/ Down which musicians slipped with instrument cases” (Sonny Brogan’s Jigs).
The qualities of his much-appreciated elegiac sequence for his wife, The Venetian Suite are evident in many of his poems: a self-conscious nostalgia and wonder, as when he remembers “unlit stairways after midnight./ May some tenant of the future/ Turn when switching out their light/ And, framed by the doorway, glimpse/ The phosphorescence of our lives/ Still glowing with happiness” (Leinster Street).
John McAuliffe’s fourth book, The Way In, was published by Gallery this year. He edited the forthcoming anthology Everything to Play For: 99 Poems about Sport, with a preface by Sonia O’Sullivan