Matthew Sweeney’s final works show the power of suggestion
Poetry review: Elsewhere, Micheal O’Siadhail tackles Kant, Yeats and Michael Fingleton
An image of Matthew Sweeney. Photograph: Bloodaxe
Matthew Sweeney has been a singular presence in Irish poetry for decades, and the much-travelled, Donegal-born poet had finished two reassuringly characteristic new books before his death in August. One of them, My Life as a Painter (Bloodaxe, £9.95), includes many new signature poems, tales whose surprising images suddenly gather additional narrative force. In The Fire Devil, an ancient farmer, finding his home on fire, must uselessly “grab a bucket and/ limp to an outside tap”, before he howls to “his dead wife, his emigrated children but not/ to his god who had created this fire devil/ and sent him to the cottage to do his dance/ laughing all the while at the sea all around”. Hovering in the background, surely, is the phrase “keep the home fires burning”.
The title poem manages the same kind of powerful intimation:
“I wouldn’t depict my father on
the hill with the shotgun or Rossa, the red setter,
running to collect the birds. No, I’d stay faithful
to the old concept of the still life or, in French,
nature morte. Birds on a plate, nothing else.
I might add a few colours that weren’t there.”
By this point, of course, it is impossible not to see that shotgun. In the face of a world where Sweeney could always find portents of doom, this book is almost nonchalant about what is coming – as the refrain of one poem puts it: “What odds, my aunt said, What odds?”
Sweeney spent most of the past decade in Cork, which benefited from his work as a mentor at the Munster Literature Centre and as an occasional editor at the journal Southword. The city features regularly in his work, and with exhilarating effect in Frogman:
“He darted past her, alongside a pair of startled grilse.
Seagulls were circling overhead, as he veered left
to Daunt Square where two men waded with a statue
of the Virgin, trying to get the flood to subside. Yeah!
The water was rising, soon it would be over the roofs.
He looked forward to being the city’s last survivor.”
In 2015 Sweeney spent some months in Paris and wrote a series of responses to Baudelaire’s prose poems. The result, King of a Rainy Country (Arc, £10.99), creates, as his friend Maurice Riordan writes, “a wry self-portrait whereby the props and obsessions of Sweeney’s poems consort companionably in prose’s more temperate medium”.
Sweeney’s imaginative idiosyncrasies and his way of reading significance into obscure details provide a perfect foil for his experience of a city dealing with the Bataclan attack. Machine-gun-toting soldiers ghost the streets Sweeney walks, accompanied by acrobat-poets, Koran-reading beggars, much European jazz (Sweeney was an aficionado) and many glasses of good and so-so red wine. Addressing Baudelaire, ducking in and out of restaurants and graveyards and public squares, thinking about violence and drugs and empty rooms and painting and learning French, this is a delicate, thoroughly enjoyable, and memorably affecting book.
“Much as I am taken by Eliot’s great poem, I always felt it needed a fifth part”: so, Micheal O’Siadhail’s new book is titled, vaingloriously (as he admits), The Five Quintets (Baylor, $34.95). What ensues is a tour of mostly European intellectual history, with short sketches of those figures O’Siadhail credits with making the modern world.
O’Siadhail’s summaries veer from praise, for Freidrich II, Gladstone, Woodrow Wilson and Mary McAleese (“Healing wounds of broken histories”), to critiques of Milton Friedman, Mahler, Kant (“Too much head, a lack of cri de coeur”), and outright disparagement, covering Yeats (“old lecher with a love on every wind”), Wordsworth (“a radical returned to yeoman class”), and Michael Fingleton, who takes his place among the stars by virtue of his “selling loans that trail/ A spider’s web of cyberspace”, although that judgment feels more personal:
“Your dealing fingers now will dip
Down into Nationwide’s dug well
To help All Hallows where you had
Aspired to priesthood – special funds
You lavish on your launching pad”
Aside from Fingleton, what is mostly missing, as we cruise through centuries of potted biography, is the speaker’s rationale for such a project, or why the book describes Messiaen, special relativity, Keynesian economics and Levinas, but not, say, Berlioz, or Alan Turing, or Emily Dickinson, or Michael D Higgins.
O’Siadhail suggests Dante as the key to his approach, but the book’s style, though always readable, lacks invention in its tone, or sustained vividness in images. O’Siadhail sidesteps the issue of poetics when his introduction argues, “Poets have a part to play in shaping our public discourse”, and, “I know it may not be a popular view these days, but I do believe that poetry belongs in the public sphere”. Belief is beside the point, though, if his overview will omit as precursors the discursive public poetry of fellow Dubliners like Anthony Cronin and Harry Clifton and the overt intention of so much recent English-language poetry to shape or at least respond to public discourse.
What does this scholarly book bring to such discourse? The defining idea is Third Way liberalism (“Law’s a theme on which we improvise”), cut across in the final quintet by an account of personal love; the book’s commitment to recording as many political ideas as possible risks its contribution being quickly subsumed into the existing “public sphere” it wants to shape.
Jane Robinson’s debut, Journey to the Sleeping Whale (Salmon, €12), is evidently at home with image and metaphor, and with what she calls Unfamiliar Territory, a poem that begins:
“Night falls like octopus ink over Xeroxed streets.
I light my candle and run through alleyways
searching for the compass rose, the smell of home
on a dry crust of bread to eat with those sweet figs.”
Attention to the material beauty of a planet under pressure marks the book’s best poems. In a fine sequence, Rana Temporaria is Ireland’s Only Frog, she describes “a frog/ whose skin’s a mucous membrane/ like my eyes and mouth/ where inside opens wetly to the outside”, an image so tender it hardly needs the accompanying description of bleach and detergent pollution to make its ecological point. Robinson’s artistry is clear, though, when an origami frog is then magicked together, “thumb-smoothed, rubbed and stroked/ to a thin and slippery tissue ghost”.
John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.