Poetry round-up: Super Mario, Tinker Bell and hunting with eagles
Debut collection from Stephen Sexton and new work from Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon: his big new poetry collection covers many bases. Photograph: Oliver Morris/Getty Images
In an essay on memory and excavation, the German writer Walter Benjamin observes that “a good archaeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through”. Stephen Sexton’s debut If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, £9.99) is not exactly such an archaeological dig, but it has discovered a strangely layered medium to access memory. The book describes each of the 72 levels of a Nintendo Super Mario game which Sexton played as a child, and the unexpected memories which come from revisiting the game as an adult.
In particular, as he describes the little Italian plumber Mario’s journey through fantastical landscapes, Sexton uncovers memories of his mother and her illness: the poem’s unusual method stays true to both its digital and autobiographical sources; the Nintendo landscape continuously suggests and prompts the poem’s elegiac impulse. In Vanilla Secret 1 (the poem titles, taken from the game, are not always indicative about what it is the poems do):
“The sun tugs fistfuls of ivy and vine stems to the cave’s ceiling.
I take the Orpheus route from one world up into another
via footholds and fissures and bone dry mouths in the sheer rock’s face
into the brightly-lit waiting room and something like wakefulness.”
Sexton uses a long 16-syllable line throughout which, along with unemphatic, unidiomatic phrasing, contributes to an unusual levelness of tone in its listing of one thing after another. The long, fixed line generates unusual associations as it imitates the rapidly moving point of view of the game.
The book’s style is certainly flatter than in Sexton’s prizewinning individual poems, but more propulsive, as the chains of description are connected by and and and. The headlong style moves speedily from one scene (or level) to another, but – for readers who might be put off by the digital method – the game’s terrain is often mere background, not just to Sexton’s elegiac account of his mother’s illness, but also for powerfully prismatic settings of other material, as in the bombing remembered in Forest of Illusion 3:
in the kitchen is a havoc of Omagh way beyond the lough
and of Slevins the chemists’ shop of childen running in the road
of a group of Spanish tourists of the Assumption of Mary
insofar as it can be seen. I pause in the darkened forest”
As the book progresses, the frantic recourse to the bright scenes of the video game struggle to contain the mother’s illness: “On through the valley of the shadow shifting strata mazes of dirt / walls closing like mine collapses or morphine’s tightness in the chest / its heaviness and terror.” (Valley of Bowser 2) By keeping its faith in memory, though, the poem suggests its own consolatory power when it conjures up the game’s now haunted spaces: “which is only to say that once / when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing / once in the corner of the room once I was sitting in its light.” (Front Door).
Sexton’s book is original and compelling, and also keenly aware of the work of his peers. He studied with Ciaran Carson at Queens, and the book’s structure owes something to the 14-syllable lines of his elaborate book-length sequence For All We Know, while its numbly observed hospital scenes are reminiscent of Carson’s Until Before After. Another influence is Paul Muldoon whose habit of ending his books with a long poem that reprises images from earlier poems in the book is mimicked by Sexton’s entertaining Credits (in order of appearance) which lists every object and reference in his book
The title poem of Muldoon’s new book Frolic and Detour (Faber, £14.99) is just such an indexical poem, crowded with proper names but threading its quest, to buy a “Hifashion chainsaw” (really!), with references to The Troggs, the wren (aka, the genus Troglodytes), the spirit of a Native American chief Tamanend, the Greek poet Stesichorus, Peter Pan, and Jane or Jenny Wren (who is “credited with playing Tinker Bell in the first West End / production of Peter Pan”.). The poem is a card trick, a feat of prestidigitation as it flips through one picture after another, so entertainingly that we almost forget that we want to “find the lady” in all this profusion.
But maybe the most memorable moment in the book is one of its elegies, With Eilmer of Malmesbury.
If the title poem is a dazzling display, other poems are slightly cooler: 1916: The Eoghan Rua Variations offers a Yeatsian vision of history’s cycles as it charts a succession of empires falling apart. Yeats in fact haunts the book, just as Beckett and Joyce were presiding spirits in Muldoon’s 90s collections. In spite of its obscure title the sonnet sequence Encheiresin Naturae is a relatively straightforward “history-from-below” approach to Yeats’s East Galway landscape, taking its cue from lines Yeats had carved at Thoor, Ballylee: (“smithy work from the Gort forge, /Restored this tower for my wife George / And may these characters remain / When all is ruin once again”.). Now Muldoon introduces the blacksmith Ted Burke of the Gort Forge, who offers a dramatic foil for Yeats’s immortal ambitions: “The poet’s talk of cones or souls waiting for new husks / went right over our heads like a partridge / taking off over the barn before once more falling hard.”
This big, baggy book covers many bases. A long sequence Belfast Hymn feels like a retread, as does Position Paper, his nonetheless amusing response to Donald Trump’s mangling of the language: “Where there’s muck we become as sounding brass.” he writes, “Put your money in the company you keep.” The marvellous menagerie of Muldoon’s animal poems is extended to include chickadees, a Viking horse, a tortoise, a Mexican rooster and in Hunting with Eagles, Western Mongolia, 2016, a very Muldoon-like eagle who “grips my arm as if about to let me in on something really big”.
But maybe the most memorable moment in the book is one of its elegies, With Eilmer of Malmesbury. Walter Benjamin’s account of memory as method applies to the way it registers the strata it disturbs as it proceeds: the poem’s elaborate response to the death of a friend’s son invokes a Native American chieftain, an English monk and a bass player in transit with his instrument, before it suddenly gives way to a stunningly clarifying and self-accusing cry, which finds itself mid-air, and punning on the poet’s own name: “When I look down I see the pall cast over everything / is only partly the shadow / of my own wing.”