THE OFFSPRING OF THE MOON:
Adam Wyeth reviews John W. Sexton's newest poetry collection
ADAM WYETH was born in Sussex in 1978, and moved to Ireland, County Cork in 2000. His debut collection Silent Music was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and was commended by the Forward Poetry Prize (2012). His poetry has won and been commended in many competitions, including The Fish International Poetry Competition (winner, 2009). His work appears in several anthologies including The Forward Prize Anthology (2012) and The Best of Irish Poetry (2010). His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and journals, including: The Stinging Fly, The SHOp, Poetry London and Magma. Wyeth is a member of the Poetry Ireland Writers in Schools Scheme and a featured poet on the Poetry International Web. His forthcoming book, The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry is due out with Salmon in autumn 2013. He runs an international online Creative Writing workshop at www.adamwyeth.com.
The Offspring of the Moon
John W. Sexton
(Salmon Poetry, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1-908836-28-1 999
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Nothing is as it seems in John W. Sexton’s fifth and most scintillating collection to date, The Offspring of the Moon. Through the alchemy of Sexton’s imagination, the everyday is transmuted into art. Among the people and creatures to be met in the collection is a sandman, a mermaid, several cats, a cloak of owls, William Blake’s vision of ghost fleas, the unintentional portents of a magician, Aladdin releasing Djinn from an egg over breakfast and an angel who lives on the tip of a pin in a house of golden thread. Questions of belief and imaginative freedom are approached from unlikely angles. From the man who brought us the cult RTE radio series The Ivory Tower, John W. Sexton continues to find significance in the marginal, the endangered, the apocryphal and the downright absurd.
The collection is dedicated to American fiction writer Harlan Jay Ellison, "Whose fiction", Sexton says, "was my first mentor in the lyricality of imagination." This pithy description perfectly sums up Sexton’s literary raison d’être. The poems are full of imaginative flights that see the everyday world in a fresh otherworldly perspective.
Sexton sticks to Pound’s maxim of "Make it new" while also not leaving out the old. His poems, as well as being highly inventive, are offsprings of other visionary poets such as William Blake. In the ‘Sandman’ – a fine piece that uses the lower case and extended space between words to highlight the minute and shifting sands of time and space – Sexton, rather than only seeing "a world in a grain of sand" embodies each "disparate grain by disparate grain" itself. The collection is also notable for its heavy use of curious, exotic and humorous visual metaphors, reminiscent of Martian poetry, which aimed to break the grip of "the familiar" by describing ordinary things in unfamiliar ways. But rather than only being an outside observer of an alien world, Sexton turns the world upside down and inside out by literally getting under the skin of his subjects. Many of Sexton’s poems are anthropomorphic dramatic monologues.
The collection opens with one of the many persona poems, ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’, who describe themselves as "lopsided puppets awkward/ in motion through the air. Our wings/ are fractured windows of pale glass looking/ out, looking in, to nothing." The poem ends with the arresting image, "We carry the dusk of autumn." The last line contains more than a tinge of Ted Hughes’ masterpiece, ‘Gnat-Psalm’. The poem also brings to mind Yeats’ ‘Long-Legged Fly’. Like Yeats, Sexton’s restless imagination moves like "a long-legged fly upon a stream".
Sexton’s passion for invention is reflected in his poem ‘Inventor, 1899-1985’ after the Hungarian inventor of the ballpoint pen. Like many of the poems it’s about an everyday, taken-for-granted object that takes on wider themes. The first line immediately picks up on the durability of the inventor with the linguistically paradoxical: "Biro, immortal in every biro". This is language awake to its own powers. While some poets may pine for an age of the fountain pen and lament the end of flowery calligraphy, Sexton discovers poetry through "a scribble in the margin" and the quotidian duties found in a "shopping list: toilets rolls, razors,/ bleach, custard powder, milk, cat food, pencils". As the poem continues, both the pen and the person become indistinguishable and an act of resurrection is made every time a pen is "re-filled again and again".
As well as nods to Hughes, Blake and Yeats, other poets are found hiding in the shadows. ‘Soft Furnishings’ the first in many poems about cats and Uncle Balthazar who "keeps his cats hidden/ from the Cat Inspector" is a nod to nonsense poet Edward Lear. In ‘Frog’ Heaney’s ‘Death of Naturalist’ raises its slimy head. But rather than the poem acting as a metaphor for prepubescent sexuality as Heaney’s does, Sexton’s ‘Frog’ is more akin to Blake again, as he takes us literally into the amphibian’s interior. "I hold the world inside my mouth, ribbeting/ to get out." Sexton’s imagination is fired by the cosmic beginning and the end seen in the natural world, as the poem concludes, "In the heron’s/ beak I am the Omega of swallowed things."
‘Sunlight’ is another anthropomorphic piece that may also be seen to symbolize the poet’s eye: "I rest on top of things, but am never/ at rest." Like many of the poems in the collection, ‘Sunlight’ is a sonnet. Sexton uses the form with great fluency and flair, taking full advantage of the conversation between octet and sestet. The poem ends with a domestic scene of the omnipotent sun shining on wives "out on their lawns, relishing my/ touch". Even with a subject based on light, Sexton is capable of brilliant contrast:
And all of the wives are mine, all of them
sitting out patiently soaking me in, none of them
jealous that I have them all, darkening under me.
All of Sexton’s fine craftsmanship, technical virtuosity and imagination come to the fore in his paradoxical masterpiece ‘Pulls’, in which his anthropomorphic eye, domestic setting, sensuous syntax, imagery and metaphor are brilliantly put together. The poem begins with, "The spawn of snags that laid no eggs/ but waited in untended points or nails", a reminder that life can be seen everywhere. The poem continues,
...drawing loose worms
of wool. Catch us by the heads and we’ll
bring the bound world out with our tails.
Best not to nip us at the root, or else we’ll
hole ourselves whole....
The mostly monosyllabic words mirror the small, worm-like pulls. While Sexton’s work has a playfully domestic side there’s also a darker texture beneath it, as the pulls reveal that "Left unattended/ we’ll lengthen in time and unravel our own/ beginnings". How Sexton takes a subject as mundane as the pulls in wool that appear in garments and transforms it into a startling piece of poetry is testament to his alchemical imagination and deep understanding of language, which when placed together in the right way produces pure gold.
Sexton’s preoccupation with eggs, spawn, cells and the micro world of pre-life continues throughout the collection. It’s brought brilliantly to life when Wang-Yu-Feng "breaks an egg against his head/ and a yellow dragon runs through his hair". The pun of "an Empire spoiled" at the end is the perfect lead on for his next poem, ‘Breakfast with Aladdin’, that begins "With a tarnished spoon he opened a door/ in the top of an egg". Sexton’s psychedelic doors of perception can burst open anywhere.
Within the collection are also several nature poems, including the anthropomorphic ‘Bog Asphodel’, which turns the cosmos upside down, where "through the seeping space of bog/ I erupt in yellow stars". ‘Badger’ is another anthropomorphic monologue, which contains the collection’s title. Again it turns the natural world into something supernatural. "As the moon tongues the earth with light/ I snout the pebbled ground…. I/ am the offspring of the moon, her/ pathway of light the stripe of white/ on my forehead…".
Sexton’s poems open up a world that lies both within and beyond the ordinary world. Reading The Offspring of the Moon, one gets the impression that behind the panelling of Sexton’s library lies a secret chamber. What anchors Sexton’s dark fairytale and ludic imagination is that all these poems on small, often domestic items such as biros, act as one big metaphor for poetry itself. Like the pulls of wool, the poems show us how poetry flourishes in gaps.
Charles Simic said, "All poets, if they are any good, tend to stand apart from their literary age. They either linger in the past, advance into some imaginary future, or live in some version of the present that is altogether of their own." What is remarkable about Sexton is that he does all three.
©2013 Adam Wyeth
Adam Wyeth at Poetry International Web
Wyeth's author page at Salmon Poetry
Nuala Ní Chonchúir interview with Wyeth