The Saturday poem: The Descent into Limbo

A poem by Matthew Sweeney

Matthew Sweeney, who died in August. Photograph: Bloodaxe

Matthew Sweeney, who died in August. Photograph: Bloodaxe


i.m. Pieter Niejmeijer

Pieter, someone – was it yourself? – has sent
me a postcard I wrote to you in March 1992.
On the picture side we see Mantegna’s
depiction of Christ climbing down into Limbo.
He looks a bit like you. Is that where you are now
(though I know Limbo has been abolished)?
You wouldn’t care about that. Why send my old
postcard back to me? What stamps did you use?
In my handwriting I say I can’t be sure I’m
deciphering yours enough to get your address right
but I must have. You’ve included no address this time.
I know I gave you carte blanche to contact me in a
variety of ways, including carrier pigeon or crow,
but this method you’ve chosen is the oddest,
even if it seems the simplest. And if you respond
to my words here you’ll recall I ruled out telepathy,
not that you’d try that. No, your way will be careful,
sure, as you always liked to be. Do you remember
being in a car with me, passing slowly through
Newry during an Orange parade? I was laughing at
how silly they looked, with their hats and sashes,
and I went to open the window to tell them this.
You stopped the car and asked me to get out,
whereupon I desisted in my clowning and we
continued in silence on our journey to Donegal.
That was before 1992. Last time we met was, I think,
in 2003, in Antwerp. I took a train from Rotterdam
to find you sitting outside a bar. I saw your damage,
immediately. Was this a pretaste of Limbo? If that’s
where you are, I need to know – you choose how.

  • Matthew Sweeney, who died in August, was the author of many collections of poetry, including My Life as a Painter (Bloodaxe), published earlier this year. A book of prose poems, King of a Rainy Country – poems in response to Baudelaire’s prose poems – is published by Arc this month