Matthew Sweeney’s Shadow of the Owl reviewed by Mike Farren
Shadow of the Owl by Matthew Sweeney. £10.99. Bloodaxe. ISBN: 978 1 78037 542-7
If we envisage a poet writing under the shadow of death, we are most likely to consider either the youth – Keats coughing blood; Owen in the trenches – or one who has passed three score and ten: there’s the recent example of Clive James’ public leave-taking.
Matthew Sweeney, who died aged 65 in 2018, doesn’t quite fit either of those templates, just as his writing did not neatly fit an established Irish or British template. This posthumously-published volume begins under the threat of an undiagnosed, though clearly serious illness, which became an imminent death sentence when identified as motor neurone disease.
This section, ‘The Owl’, presents an extended analogy between the lowering, unseen presence of an owl and the wait for a diagnosis in a dozen, numbered 20-line poems (one stretches to 21 lines). As the sequence – and the book – opens, Sweeney tells us, “No one knows where I’m going, / not even me”, and the process of discovering the destination gives the reader some impression of Sweeney’s anxiety at finding out. In this poem and the next few, the owl is cast as a messenger and his role seen as ambiguous, with Sweeney tossing strings of questions and speculations in his direction. This ambiguity gradually metamorphoses into tight-lipped malevolence, obsessing Sweeney, as the owl’s association with the disease becomes more explicit:
I saw my doctor
yesterday, he spoke of the deterioration,
and I felt the owl was hiding in a cupboard,
agreeing with every word. (‘The Owl: 5’)
As life goes on – listening to jazz, drinking Talisker or wine, eating rye bread – hostility from Sweeney to the owl grows. He tries the sympathetic magic of drawing owls on A2 paper, only to worry that this will be seen as an act of war, which leads him to up the ante with bow and arrow. In the final poem of ‘The Owl’, Sweeney tells us:
I heard a faint huhuhu followed by
a whoo. You cowardly bastard!, I roared, and
sprayed the arrows all over the blackened world. (‘The Owl: 12’)
The second section, simply called ‘The Sequence’, appears to be a string of dream- (or nightmare-) like metaphors for the thing that is trying to kill Sweeney. As his partner, Mary Noonan, notes in the introduction, he had the “habit of writing directly from his unconscious”, and this comes to the fore here, with visceral, Kafkaesque vignettes of looming destruction. Death is, variously: a movie director getting him to march over a cliff-edge; a series of fiendish devices (one operated by an owl) designed to finish the poet (recalling the machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony); a crocodile that lurks on the banks of Cork’s River Lee before following Sweeney home; a lift that rather too closely resembles a mortuary drawer…
The self-absorption in this might seem indulgent in other circumstances but feels absolutely appropriate to Sweeney’s position. “Why the theatrics?”, the poet asks in ‘The Assassins’: the reason seems clear – his imagination is playing out a literal life-and-death psychodrama. In ‘Crucifixion’, two nightmarish stooges bring a cross to his door:
to carry out your crucifixion.’ Seeing my reaction
he laughed. ‘Don’t worry it’s all been paid for.
Humorous touches such as this (and the fact that, in this poem, he is equally concerned at a pan of beetroot boiling dry) mark the continuity from Sweeney’s earlier work, in which the surface geniality of the absurdity covers something darker, more Dionysian. These touches also make the situation less painful to bear, as do the moments of blissful remission that intrude: angelic singing that interrupts a jazz CD or a disgusting stench (recalling his earlier ‘A Smell of Fish’) that transforms into the pine smell of a sauna.
Both consoling and hard to bear, however, is the final poem of ‘The Sequence’, ‘Plum Saké’. Here, a carafe of fine saké is mysteriously left for the poet to enjoy. As he consumes it “slowly as the sunset, wanting more before / it was gone”, it is mysteriously replenished. Finally, as the day slips into darkness “slowly as the rising moon”:
when I came back again
the carafe was full. I offered no complaint,
even raised my drink to toast the invisible
supplier, but I knew this was my last one.
Despite the beautiful sense of cadence, we’re only half way through the book. However, even if the remaining sections – ‘Other Poems’ and ‘Last Poems’ – are as much of a miscellany their titles suggest and sometimes feel unfinished, it would still be ridiculous not to want more poems by Sweeney.
Within these sections, the focus on small, soon-to-be-missed pleasures continues. When Sweeney declares himself, in ‘Trauma’ to be a Buddhist, it is unsurprising given the meditative intensity of reflections on friends, places, memories and other pleasures. In ‘Onions’ that pleasure is a piece of raw onion in a beef sandwich – “the Roy Keane of the team”. In ‘The Ice Cream Van’, “breezy circus music” almost distracts him while “waiting for the whole world to call me – / first my doctor, with the results of my tests”.
Even when attention moves back to the illness, the level of detail is perfect:
Shit smells like corned beef
when it’s kept in – those old
tins from far-off Argentina
that floated their way to Donegal
when I was a child, long before
this constipation that bedevils me. (‘The Bathroom Devils’)
The harsh realism of a side effect of the illness co-exists with the whimsy of the corned beef tins floating across the Atlantic in a way that seems entirely characteristic of Sweeney.
After the poignancy of the ending of ‘The Sequence’, it seems greedy to hope for a similarly affecting ending for the whole volume. ‘Mouse Sandwich’, however, is a Sweeneyesque dream poem further amplified by “Señor Morphine”, in which he takes defiant pleasure in the eponymous sandwich before teasing us, heartbreakingly, “I won’t tell you about the other dreams.” He won’t now, and we’re the poorer for it!
Mike Farren is an editor from Shipley, W. Yorks. His poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies and he has been placed and commended in several competitions, including as ‘canto’ winner for Poem of the North (2018) and winner of both the Saltaire Festival and Ilkley Literature Festival poetry prizes in 2020. His pamphlets are Pierrot and his Mother (Templar) and All of the Moons (Yaffle). He co-hosts Rhubarb open mic.
Kerry Hardie’s Where Now Begins reviewed by Colin Pink
Where Now Begins by Kerry Hardie. £9.95 Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 978-1-78037-510-6
This is Kerry Hardie’s eighth collection of poems. The dominant themes in the collection are observations of the natural world, the life of plants and animals, and the feeling of encroaching age, mortality and an examination of the disintegration of a sense of self, most striking in the long poem ‘There’s More Than One of Us in Here’:
Is it you,
or is it the Other One?
but also in a short poem such as ‘Inhabitants’:
Tell me, I,
how many mes
compete inside our over-crowded space?
The opening poem is a vivid evocation of an old tree whose ‘… branches / are bones, holding the air in its place.’ And it sets the tone for the sense in the book of nature framing our lives both as a source of reassurance and also an ongoing struggle. In ‘Hymn’ the poet struggles to control her garden:
Now everything’s gone mad growing, especially the weeds …
and me, struggling to tame it, over and over,
and failing to tame it, over and over,
and as long as it always wins and I always lose
there’s a chance.
There are several poems with a gardening theme. In ‘Shasta Daisies’ the poet assures us ‘even you can grow them’ and later the poem builds to a comical description of trying to dig up the roots:
then spearing the centre and rocking and trampling and twisting
till – brute force failing – you jump on it (the fork/sprong)
risking that awful oh shit cracking sound
when the shaft gives at the join, but it didn’t,
there was only a rain of soil and me on my back in the wet grass
Lying on her back, observing the tangled roots, there is a change of mood as the poet is reminded, by the ‘massed rosy shoots and long tangled roots’, of the interconnected turmoil of family life.
Hardie is aware of both the necessity for and the difficulty of relationships, especially in the context of Northern Ireland. In ‘Derry’ for instance: ‘Walking that street, the all-but-forgotten feeling/ of eyes-on-my-back has come back.’ From an ‘unlikely’ flower shop she buys tulips in bud and hopes they will be red; but when they flower they turn out to be an anaemic/pessimistic white, which suggests hopes for the future will be disappointed.
Feelings of identity and encroaching mortality are neatly expressed in ‘Bolt the Shutter’ where:
The face that looks from the mirror
has the long-boned jaw of my forebears.
How age gives them access. They gaze,
their eyes black with apprehension.
Where shall we go, they are saying,
when the hearth of your flesh grows cold?
Awareness of the inconsolable nature of death is powerfully expressed in ‘The Inadequacy of Letters of Condolence (for a French woman living in Ireland)’ which combines themes of identity, history, nature and death. The poem opens with some simple declarative statements: ‘The paper white, the ink black, / your sister, dead in France’; it goes on to contrast this with blackbirds rooting for worms and sheep grazing in a field with memories of wartime history, concluding:
The whiteness of paper, the blackness of ink.
The link in the chain that’s wrenched open;
your link falling loose.
The blackbird rooting as I write this letter.
The sheep in the ravaged beet field
that smells now of fish and decay.
If the above poem is (partly) about the impossibility of expressing mourning, in ‘Eel-speak’ (a memorial poem for fellow poet Ciaran Carson) Hardie finds a pungent way of dealing with bereavement, in one of the most powerful images in the book; she imagines herself fishing and catching the young Ciaran:
My line has flared across the arc
of all the years since we were young. I have you hooked,
hauled in, and thrashing on the bank.
Not you as you are now, but as you were –
all bristled tight and angry like a landed eel
and slapping on the hard stones of yourself.
Hardie ends the book on a more abstracted/philosophically oriented meditation on death, in a poem called ‘Coats (for everyone)’, where she disposes of the deceased person’s coat once ‘the smell of the wearer has finally faded’. And in the end:
Time will soon pass. You will also be dead
And that doesn’t matter, it’s only what happens,
the spirit moving to light
the flesh settling into the clay.
Colin Pink is a freelance writer and art historian specialising in modern art since 1940. His poetry has been published in a variety of UK and Irish magazines and his poem ‘Games the Dead Play’ was long listed for the National Poetry Prize in 2012. His first book of poems Acrobats of Sound is available from Poetry Salzburg Press.