Matthew Sweeney, Inquisition Lane, Bloodaxe, £9.95, ISBN 9781780371481
Eamon Grennan, There Now, Gallery, £9, ISBN 9781852356439
Reviewed by Gregory Leadbetter
Matthew Sweeney sets the scene for Inquisition Lane with an epigraph from Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ – where, at the stroke of midnight, the hooting owls wake the sleeping cockerel, which then mistakes midnight for morning, and sends up a drowsy cock-a-doodle-doo. Its unlikely, faintly comic image is of an unsettled natural order – the displacement of what seem like certainties. Sweeney’s work revels in precisely that, with a wonderful facility for clearly drawn vignettes that refuse explanation: things just happen, what is just is. It’s bold and disarming, and for all its playfulness is grounded in a primal creative freedom that’s as old as the hills: making things up, and making them so that they hold the attention with a quality of truth not dependent upon what are complacently known as actual facts. Here’s to that.
Sweeney’s absurdism is everywhere characterised by its humour. In ‘The Canary’, the narrator buys the singing bird “after a bit of haggling in Arabic, / of which I knew one word”. In ‘Greenland’, the poet ponders a trip to Nuuq, where (after taking the local firewater) he might sing a few Irish songs – which might lead to a stand-off where “the locals threaten / me, saying my voice is shite” (upon which he would whip out “an old Irish jersey / signed by Roy Keane”, and pointedly “ask them what colour it is”). In Berlin, sightings of monks on motorbikes become worryingly common: “a second monk farted my way / with a nun on the pillion. What was / happening to Catholicism in Germany?” (‘Catholicism in Germany’). Beginning with “Oh, Neil Armstrong, I met you / in Shropshire, in some arts retreat”, ‘Elegy for the Moonman’ (which I so wanted to be true in that actual fact kind of way) goes on to describe an evening’s chat over a drink with the great man, where he unexpectedly admits that “The moon fucked me up”.
The verse of Inquisition Lane (again characteristically) is driven principally by image rather than sound. Sweeney’s language, adapted to that purpose, is assured, fluent and direct. Structurally and rhythmically, the poems typically employ three- or four-stress lines, with a soft final syllable propelling heavily enjambed lineation. The collection features a sestina (‘Broken Flower’) – that apparently contentious form (among poets at least): elsewhere, Sweeney’s persona composes a “curse for the editor / who’d dropped me. I forced myself / to encompass this in a sestina, / a form I knew he hated” (‘The Beauty Institute’).
Sweeney’s poems are populated by a fellow-citizenry of animals: goats (either lingering or curried), a cat (fondly laughed at, buried), an elephant (also buried), a crow (an agent of righteous vengeance) – and the collection more or less begins and ends with unnaturally wise parrots. I say fellow-citizenry because that is how Sweeney treats them: living beings with whom the poet shares his habitat, who may or may not know more than he does. This species-levelling consciousness is entirely at one with the accommodating intelligence of his verse, which entertains all-comers to its precincts.
The title poem of the collection is a haunting piece. It plays on the contrast between the poet’s well-fed, unmolested freedom from torture – freedom, that is, from a real Inquisition or its analogues – and the thought that such a threat might not be so far distant as we blithely think. Moreover, the collection as a whole is grounded in death. In ‘The One-eyed Philosopher of Katmandu’, the philosopher compares death to stepping from a clifftop into space, and tells the “young poet” who visits him: “Be sure in your scribing to speak of that space / and nothing else”. Inquisition Lane is filled with burials – “I keep going to funerals these days. / Everyone is dying” (‘The Loop’) – and an exasperation at the arrogation of death and its rituals by priestcraft and conventional religious eulogy. There are touching laments here for Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’Driscoll and the poet’s own sister – none of them maudlin, and all marked by authentic human warmth.
The volume is dedicated to John Hartley Williams, who is memorialised in the last poem of the book, ‘Co-Author’. Williams and Sweeney co-wrote the comic novel Death Comes for the Poets (2012), to which the poem alludes – its title echoed by the “bespectacled parrot” of ‘The One-eyed Philosopher of Katmandu’, who chants: “Death comes / to those fools who are never expecting him”. The collection closes with another parrot, in the final stanza of ‘Co-Author’:
Big man, brother, co-author, friend,
I’ve employed a magician who will bring
you back as the Heine-quoting parrot
in our novel, possibly your favourite
character. You’ll have to live with me,
and this time you’ll quote your own lines.
You can even compose new poems.
The year he died, Ted Hughes wrote to Sweeney encouraging him to go on writing “in exactly that playful free but really open to any mood fantasia flight, dream flight, that you’ve discovered” – which “would gradually become the real Sweeney autobiography: Sweeney’s mythic life” (as published in Hughes’s Selected Letters, edited by Christopher Reid). Happily, in the light of that potent affirmation, Inquisition Lane gives cause to say with confidence that Sweeney has stayed true to the method Hughes divined.
The dream flight of Eamon Grennan’s There Now is conducted by ear as much as by the eye. Its opening poem, ‘Listen’, begins with the untranslatable lowing of a cow, which “hears louder than the Angelus bell the big bó-bawl / of another cow”. What many Anglophone readers might not recognise as the Irish word for “cow” (“bó”) operates there as the onomatopoeic figure of a sound that touches the nerves beyond conscious understanding. The poem becomes Grennan’s response to the mystery of the cattle’s “world-obliterating duet: a duologue affirming / with each enormous diphthong their earthly unassailable / real presence”. The spacious rhythmic force of “each enormous diphthong” nests in these lines like a world within a world – to which, in effect, the listening of the poem is witness.
As those familiar with Grennan’s work would expect, there is an abundant, mouth-filling music to the verse, which makes you want to speak it. Take this, the entirety of ‘Spring Connections’:
Leafgreen scurf of pollen on the meadow pond
blizzard of bridal-white blossom in breeze-gust
two redtails idling high on a thermal and higher
in widening circles till they must be near
out of each other’s sight but not sound as one lets out
a cutting screech that scars spring-blue air and
the other in a long jagged sickle-tooth screech calls back.
There is a good deal of Grennan’s technique on display here. That might be a nod to “sprung rhythm” in the title of the poem, as it dances to Hopkins’s unresting stretch of stress across syllables (take “that scars spring-blue air”), partnered with a headlong enjambment that shifts its weight at the turn of the line, as in “they must be near / out of each other’s sight”: the long “near” invites pause – brings the birds closer together – before the balance shifts in the run-on, which, like a gust the birds ride, blows them apart, only to be linked across space by their mark on the air (that “sickle-tooth screech”). It is unpunctuated except by the aeration of the language and the line-breaks (commas are as scarce as dodo eggs in this collection). The indented line gives the poem a visual purchase on the page. The alliteration, assonance and consonance are worn on the sleeve. It’s unabashedly lyric in form and tradition, drawing on energies at once ancient and modern – something not so common just now (still less at this level of vigour and ambition), which makes it all the more welcome.
While most of the poems pay attention to the sound, light and movement of the natural world, Grennan also writes in response to the other fine arts, without becoming too studied or purely ‘aesthetic’ in an isolated sense. In one memorable piece, the “startled geometry” of a Giacometti figurine is conceived “as if / one archaic standing boy had heard a call / that aged him all of a sudden and sent him / stepping through the centuries with a gleam of purpose” (‘Sculpted’).
There is an elegiac touch to the collection – not least in its own poem on the loss of Heaney, ‘Sudden Dark’ – but also because of its fundamental concern to capture the fullness of the fragmentary, passing moment. Its title, There Now, connotes both presence and transience – and plays on its other sense of quiet consolation. The poems are often preoccupied with finding a form of acceptance: “the here and now in which your / rain-laced window sets its pitiless sights / on what simply is and you adjust to it” (‘Window World’). That never lapses into coldness, however: Grennan is quick in sympathy for all that lives and moves. This is an ecological poetry, attuned to “our shared earth’s vibrations” (‘Locust Tree Vision’) and the constantly-renewed effort to speak adequately of that living reality – where “all is language settling and unsettling the world” among its “out-of-sight unspoken never-to-be-known pure / sense-startling untranslatable there” (‘World Word’).
In very different ways, both Grennan and Sweeney write poetry with a youthfulness that only comes with maturity. Likewise, these collections affirm the accomplishments of each poet’s distinctive style. “I can’t stand / being in this crap poetry world without / you”, Sweeney complains, to John Hartley Williams (‘Co-Author’). Whatever contemporary malaise Sweeney has in mind in those lines, neither he nor Grennan are in thrall to it. Anglophone poetry is richer for Sweeney’s fantasia and Grennan’s lyric infusion.
First published in The Poetry Review, 105:4, Winter 2015 © The Poetry Review and the author. Gregory Leadbetter’s debut collection, Fetch, will be published by Nine Arches Press in 2016.