Craftsmanship, comedy, sure-footed aplomb, love songs and plugging further into dark under-whisperings

John Lucas revels in the new work of a pan-European poet


Cape Poetry £8.00

One morning, some 20 years ago, I was driving to work when the car radio cut out. This was at a time when Thatcher and Reagan had re-started the cold war, Britain was shortly due to accept delivery of Cruise missiles, and there was much talk of nuclear winter. After 30 seconds or so normal service was resumed. Later, discussing with a friend my reaction to the abrupt and unexplained silence, I said ‘I think I must have panicked.’ ‘Only panic’, he said, ‘when you hear military music coming from the radio.’ I thought of that when I read ‘Zero Hour’, the opening poem of Matthew Sweeney’s latest collection.

                           The first riots
are raging as I write, and who
out there could have predicted
this sudden countdown to zero hour,
all the paraphernalia of our comfort
stamped obsolete, our memories
fighting to keep us sane and upright.

Two questions inevitably occur. Where are we and who is this? They are questions that have remained constant since Browning’s dramatic monologues opened up new ways of writing and thinking about the relations between people and places, but with Browning the answers were easier to come by than they now are. Like his great contemporary, Dickens, he took for granted a knowable universe.

Between the various monologists that Browning and Sweeney invent, however, looms the blackly comic figure of Kafka, for whom the word paranoia might have been invented. Not that the speaker of ‘Zero Hour’ is to be dismissed as delusional — any more than delusions are themselves to be dismissed as inevitably unfounded. Let’s say the poem is set somewhere in central Europe — I mean, this breakdown of law and order, the given of the opening lines, that ‘Tomorrow all the trains will stop / and we will be stranded’ couldn’t happen here, surely? But of course what makes the poem so compelling is the suggestive skill with which Sweeney marshals his facts so as to outlaw any sense of the exotic: ‘I sit in front of the television / for each successive news bulletin / then reach for the whisky bottle.’ Each locked in the prison of himself, the key, as Yeats said, is turned on our uncertainty.

Uncertainty has its part to play in the title poem, though here the speaker is very different: alone with ‘the kind of girl I like’, he’s out to seduce not merely with suave talk of food and drink but alarming (and uncomfortable) tales of unsafe streets, where the stabbing youths are out in packs:

Maybe the civil war has started,
the one they’ve all been promising.
Well, there’s nowhere to go now,
So let’s kill the lights and retire.

It’s as though the crooner of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has morphed into Porphyria’s Lover.

Given its title, ‘Siege’ might also look to inhabit this territory, but it is in fact a love poem, even if the winter that’s to be sat out is as metaphoric as it is literal — and Sweeney is by now adept at blending and blurring the categories. The intimate tone signals a very different kind of attentiveness, and the speaker’s recall of a shared knowledge is offered for agreement almost tentatively, so that even if we can’t know the significance of some details we can infer them — a tactic common to many of the best love songs: ‘And stockings in the basin when a fellow needs a shave’:

the laughs and the talk,
the old women in black
smiling, and you smiling back,
the dog who barked and was silenced.
And always, after the rain,
the day getting hotter, remember?
So sit at the window
in the darkening light, and smile —
go on, you’re good at it.

What saves this from sentimentality is its craft — the use of ‘laughs’ not ‘laughter’, the word ‘remember’, so often a crude bit of engineering to give readers information the supposed interlocutor has no need of (after all, s/he remembers the bloody thing) but here perfectly positioned to coax and therefore allow the transition to the poem’s closing lines. This is the kind of love song that Leonard Cohen might have written if he had a tithe of the ability his besotted admirers claim for him.

And now that I’ve mentioned craft it seems proper to draw attention to ‘Days of German’, a 32-line tour-de-force made up of just one sentence, as is ‘The Buoy’, although this is a whole two lines shorter. There’d be no point in making much of this accomplishment — it wouldn’t even be accomplishment — were it not for the sure-footed aplomb with which Sweeney manages line-breaks in both poems, so that they move with a fluency that entirely disguises the work that will have gone into making them. They ‘breathe easy’, as was once said of Lester Young.

In fact, so exact is Sweeney’s overall command, not merely of rhythm but of cadence — of for example the sonic effects, slightly tongue-in-cheek I assume, of the line that brings ‘Red, Yellow’ to a close, ‘slow rivers of homage to the sun’ — that it comes as a jolt when in the same poem he writes ‘Or was I being accused of being an artist’. But as this poem is a comic account of dropping a bag of red paint on Big Ben from a passing airship, maybe — just maybe — the awkwardness is intended. (At the conclusion of the first world war D’Annunzio briefly entertained a plan to fly over the Vatican and lasso the Pope, which I seem to remember produced some hectic lines of verse.)

The comic muse is neatly primed for a quartet of what might be called anti-haikus, judiciously dropped into the collection so as to explode any notion that the form can legitimately be offered to would-be poets to come all over sensitive. Hence ‘Swim’:

The skinhead sniggered
as the duck he had just plucked
waddled to the lake.

Other triumphs include the wild tale of a man who turns into a boar, which, as usual with Sweeney, starts with an attention-grabbing first line that in this case turns into an attention-grabbing eight-line stanza. ‘The mistake was having a T-shirt printed / with my family crest’ the poem begins, and then asks ‘Do you know yours?’ Good question.

And good that the poem lets us savour the untrammelled imaginings of a life beyond propriety: this boar-man is soon getting his tusks into ‘my Armani suits, all the shirts, trousers / (I loved the jeans), leaving my shit behind’, though by the end of the poem he dreams he is once more human, ‘sitting in a Gasthaus, deep in the Black Forest, / eating Wildschwein Ragout and swilling beer.’ This may seem a comic ending to a comic poem, but it is far more uncomfortable than at first appears to be the case.

And indeed there are poems in Sanctuary that go further in plugging into dark under-whisperings than I can recall from any of Sweeney’s previous collections. Or rather, the soundings now bring news of more insidiously troubling depths.

‘The Return’, for example, could be mistaken for a fanciful and not especially serious poem, its donnée the drowned man who dreams of returning to life ashore ‘to lie on the grave of his woman.’ But in fact the narrative pull has a bleak allure that comes from the undeflected requirement of the need ‘to get to land’, and while this can’t be allegorized (one of Sweeney’s great strengths is that his layered narratives of implication and suggestion never flatten out into allegory) it allows us to register a complex of feelings that couldn’t have been articulated in any other way. Not, at all events, without simplifying and so distorting and falsifying them. This is a difficult thing to achieve. That Sweeney achieves it so often in Sanctuary is pretty remarkable.


John Lucas, Professor Emeritus of English at the Universities of Loughborough and Nottingham Trent, is a poet and critic, and since 1994, publisher of Shoestring Press. His most recent books include Starting to Explain; Essays on Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry and a poetry collection, The Long and the Short of It.



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