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Patrick Cotter reviews Matthew Sweeney's newest poetry collection
Born Cork, 1963. Writer and publisher. Educated at UCC, he has published several chapbooks of his poems including The Misogynist’s Blue Nightmare (Raven Arts Press), A Socialist’s Dozen (Three Spires Press), and The True Story of Aoife and Lir’s Children & other poems (Three Spires Press). His first collection, Perplexed Skin, was published by Arlen Press in 2008. His second collection, Making Music, was published in early 2009 by Three Spires Press.
(Bloodaxe Books, 2013)
ISBN: 1 85224 967 6
€13.15 paperback. Buy from Kennys.ie
Click here for e-book option.
Critical responses to contemporary Irish poetry written by Irish poets – not born subjects of her Majesty – are shamefully sparse on the ground, but relative to Matthew Sweeney’s international stature the non-existence of a critical response to his work outside book review pages is criminally negligent.
Aside from suffering from having been born a few leagues the wrong side of an arbitrary line on a map, Sweeney has suffered critically for not loading his work with the sort of subject matter which provides pre-digested fodder for academic professionals of the Irish Studies industry. As a straight white man he’s not going to be on the curriculum for gender studies either.
He belongs to a small coterie of individual Irish poets (not a group – we don’t have groups in Irish poetry – only individuals and journalistic entities) like Dennis O’Driscoll, whose literary precursors stem not from within the literary tradition of these islands but overwhelmingly from Mitteleuropa. All of Dennis O’Driscoll’s critical plaudits originated belatedly in the United States from places and individuals with no connection to Irish America. The poems of both O’Driscoll and Sweeney are more internationalist in outlook than the average poet from these islands. By internationalist I mean possessing a certain ironic outlook – different from the cerebral irony of Paul Muldoon – rooted in a profound engagement with the tragedies of life, without resorting to straightforward complaint. It’s an irony developed by European poets who were forced to write the truth slantwise under the gaze of totalitarian regimes. But what O’Driscoll and Sweeney have both proved along with American poets such as Charles Simic, Mark Strand and Stephen Dobyns is that the aesthetic of this ironic slantwise truth-telling has a validity and efficacy in societies not affected by overarching political totalitarianism; that this aesthetic has had a validity and reason to continue existing post-1989.
The aesthetic is marked by an absence of rhetorical flourishes, often by narratives, by irony, by black, black humour and with a representation of reality incompatible with Realism or journalistic reportage, but for all that no less a true representation of wakeful reality told through the logic of dreams.
Dennis O’Driscoll once said that Bertolt Brecht was his favourite poet and it is therefore no coincidence that Matthew Sweeney is one of a couple of Irish poets who studied German to university level and came up against the worlds of Franz Kafka and Georg Trakl in their formative years.
One might think from all that I’ve written so far that Sweeney’s work would be of interest only to a small elite group familiar with mid-20th century, middle European poets, but on the contrary, along with the late O’Driscoll, he is a poet whose work is immediately accessible and highly entertaining to a broad readership ready to engage with poetry wherever they may find it or have it thrust upon them.
Horse Music as a collection is sewn into a unity through the thread of horse and crow motifs running through it. A painting by Yeats adorns the cover of the book yet when I read:
“Seven horses climbed out of the Wannsee
and galloped, dripping, to Kleist’s grave”
it is the blue forms of Franz Marc which come to my mind.
The title poem is a fable concerning a Spaniard (possibly) who has studied Irish as “a lifetime hobby”, who travels to an island where, reputedly, horses speak Irish. He encounters two horses who natter away in Irish, maligning the Spaniard under the presumption he knows no Irish himself. The man leaves dejected. One could read the poem as a parable on the overenthusiasm a person can have for an uncaring lover, an unresponsive religion or an ideology but it would be too reductive to settle on any particular reading.
Sweeney writes the sort of poem which is best appreciated as a whole, whose meanings are implicit; the sort of poem which doesn’t yield information or argument line by line to sequential narrow-focussed analysis. His poems can appear as mere whimsy to those who look to poetry to affirm a symmetrical and coherent view of the world, but the truth is—the world is asymmetrical, the world is incoherent. Any view which aims to assert otherwise is a cousin to totalitarian thought, is guided by a mind which mediates the world primarily through the machine-like processes of the left cerebrum.
Incidentally there isn’t a word of Irish in ‘Horse Music’, but there is a marvellous representation of the Irish landscape shaped by “the leaping froth of the Atlantic”. It is by such economical painterly strokes that Sweeney asserts his Irishness within his echt European aesthetic. Way too subtle for the Irish studies industrialists.
Amidst these references to aesthetics and thought-theory it is easy to miss the fact that Sweeney’s work appeals to the pleasure principle. Anyone who believes themselves not to be a part of that large cohort who are robotically incapable of appreciating a serious joke (as in Kundera’s seminal novel), I defy not to smile and take an almost visceral pleasure as they read Sweeney’s fabulist ‘A History of Glassblowing’—a major prize-winner in the British National Poetry Competition a couple of years ago. It relates glassblowers through history who crafted reality out of their art, much like a great poet can do with poems.
Sweeney’s fabulist approach even applies to poems which emerge out of close family experiences. His dead sister in her coffin is like a princess – a fact reiterated as a villanelle reiterates. As he mourns his dead father his grief conjures up all sorts of magical thinking as a mode to mitigate the great loss—a magical thinking which is quite consistent with a natural, everyday, everyman response, while also consistent with Sweeney’s aesthetic.
The concept of a poem as an experience derives more from the pleasure of kennen/connaître rather than wissen/savoir—the lack of distinction between these two concepts inherent in the English word know often inhibits our acquisition of this fact. Horse Music is not a book of essays in verse—factual reportage or encyclopaedic articles reshaped into scanning stanzas. Horse Music is full of the sort of poem which reshapes truth through the imagination, presents what you always intuitively knew in a way where you feel you are getting to know it, becoming acquainted with it, for the very first time as in a seminal experience.
©2013 Patrick Cotter
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