homeless words

(This little review of the NE magister MacSweeney was for Scotland on Sunday, and was written in June 2003.)

Occasionally, in the middle of the night, those who knew Barry MacSweeney would receive questionable phonecalls. He had a wry, lilting voice, capable of great intensity in readings, but in the dark those North-East tones became lugubrious and sinister as he suggested various bizarre crimes against what he saw as the poetry state. That state, whether characterised as ‘mainstream’ or ‘metropolitan’, kept him out of its spotlight for thirty years, whilst he pursued his own elliptical orbit. The result is this bulky selection. Like that voice from the darkness it is by turns terrifying, funny, and terribly moving.

Barry’s areas of concern are present in his earliest work: love as the most extreme emotion; the North of England as a territory opening out to earlier poetries; rock music as the alternative to conventional literary influences; and Thomas Chatterton, the Romantics’ favourite suicidal teenager, as a personal icon. The poem ‘Brother Wolf’ announces many of these obsessions:

There is so much land in Northumberland. The sea

Taught me to sing

the river to hold my nose. When

it rains it rains glue.

Chatterton’s eyes were stuck to mountains.

He saw fires where other men saw firewood.

One step ahead in recognising signals.

And leapt into the flames.

In the seventies, MacSweeney’s influences are sometimes worn too openly on his sleeve: the visceral but sometimes melodramatic gestures of Michael McClure’s poetry, with its exclamatory capitals and vertiginous centre-spacing; the syntactically-ambiguous, collage-happy work of Cambridge poets like J.H. Prynne. Nonetheless, what emerges in these experiments is a verse infused with resonant colloquial energy, lines which feel intuitive, unpredictable, yet apt, as at the close of ‘Ode Long Kesh’: ‘Nouveau Flapless in the garments of rich/hunger, living on potatoes & nitro-glycerine.’

The finest work from his middle period, Ranter, may establish him as the legitimate successor to Basil Bunting, as the poet who applies the musicality of the Northern voice to the vistas of its distinctive history and geography, producing an edgy perspective on eighties Britain. But it is in his later books that he acquires major status. When he addresses Pearl, in that eponymous collection, he appears also to be addressing the Pearl of the medieval alliterative poem; and, in The Book Of Demons, his compassion relates his fellow alcoholic to the figure of Tom in Lear:

Tom I saw you in the Heart Foundation shop

buying a cardigan five sizes too big.

Tom you’re more bent over than when

we sat together in the locked ward.

Tom your coat is frayed like the edges of your mind.

Tom they let you out to the chippy but you’re not free.

Barry died in 2000 from the alcohol-related problems that had beset him for years: demons he confronted in his last books with an unblinking responsibility to his art. These are poems of an astonishing unlocked lyricism and verbal adroitness. They are simultaneously raw and sophisticated, and have an unbending ferocity. But he is also capable of the infinitely tender Pearl poems, about a girl with a cleft palate he knew long before his own grim endgame:

I am Pearl.

So low a nobody I am beneath the cowslip’s

shadow, next to the heifers hooves.

I have a roof over my head, but none

in my mouth. All my words are homeless.

(Barry MacSweeney, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000, Bloodaxe, 334pp)

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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