a tale of two conformities (and one fantastic exception)

Nick Laird, On Purpose (Faber), 65pp, £9.99; Sean Lysaght, The Mouth of a River (Gallery), 83pp, £?; Matthew Sweeney, Black Moon (Cape), 68pp, £9.00

That these three Irish poets are so different from each other seems to say something positive about the diversity and energy of contemporary poetry from that island. However, closer examination would suggest that this is more a tale of two conformities and one (fantastical) exception. Sean Lysaght and Nick Laird, both fine writers capable of highly wrought work, point us not just towards the distinctive clarities of their respective mainstreams, but occasionally towards the mannerisms of those traditions. Matthew Sweeney, by following his own darkened satellite, has produced from the creative murk of obsession poetry of real distinction.

Irish poetry has a uniquely resonant iconography to draw on, as well as a duty to preserve and transform the heritage of language and local custom which has nourished that iconography. Sean Lysaght is part of that impressive body of writers from but not contained by the Republic who have drawn on that heritage in order to test and extend it, a task which involves resisting the easy identification of the contemporary with the urban.

In The Mouth of a River, he revisits the myth of the Salmon of Knowledge in order to celebrate the particulars of a river in the West of Ireland, and the individuals who visit it in search of subtle moments of insight. This gives rise to the marvellous ‘Midge Charm’, the first line of which feels, to anyone who has had to wince through a cloud of the beasties, as though it has risen to our lips from time immemorial: ‘Breeze god/get up and scatter the armies of the itchy witch’.

It also gives rise to a thirty two section poem on fishing which takes mimesis a little too far. Of course delay is part of the poet’s armoury as well as constituting the fisherman’s lot, but there is a lot of it here. For each case of well-observed natural phenomenon (‘The foam came down in fluffy stacks/white and stiff like catering hats’) or cutting social critique (‘”Everything’s organic here!”/”Yes,” he replied,/”including the typhus.”‘), there are awkwardnesses in the symbolic machinery. Thus the protagonist and the salmon are linked by a tired-feeling trope of desire (‘he wanted her deep, with the whisper of his hackle/on her glides’); and wisdom is conveyed by intrusive admonitory voices: ‘Return that life. Show/the restraint you preach. Don’t take her now and cancel/the passion you have known.’

The final section of the book is, as the author explains, based on Buile Shuibhne, familiar to most of us from Heaney’s translation: ‘The idea that Sweeney might have changed successively into different bird species gave me the starting point’. There are indeed some fine acts of metamorphosis in this sequence, and some brilliant snapshots of birds, though the ceaselessness of the changes (several poems repeat the idea of him twitching between half a dozen forms) seems to indicate this is a slight variation on a grand theme.

The overall impression is of a writer entirely at ease in the particulars of his landscape, producing brilliant moments, but not particularly extending his tradition or his reader. As with the ‘sparrow on a windy gutter’, when his poetry does ‘put us to the test’, the whole process is enlivened:

little god of Thor,
blown scruffy-head,
ruffle duster,
eye-liner scallopy,
skip yawn,

Nick Laird’s first book, To A Fault, was well received as further proof of the strength in depth of the present generation of Northern Irish poets. His work demonstrated a mastery of form and register together with an adroit political sensibility and a distinctive brusque tenderness. Those skills continue to be evident here, if centred more firmly in London, and ranging from Devon to points north. This serves to bring out a sharp, metropolitan elegance; to realign his muse:

As someone drafts an elegy
a vapour trail above zips shut
the body bag of sky. Cheer up.

But these are poems held together by an exactitude of definition as much as sensibility, much concerned with tone and the telling reference, which leads to some very precise successes, like the image of ‘the purest thing’: ‘like the ghost of a lighthouse//in Atlantic mist,/a full glass of skimmed milk…’ or the conceit of

You met a cabbie once who claimed
to have a perfect memory.
He said that on the morning
you were born, it rained,

then described
the clothes he’d worn,
what he’d eaten, what he’d done.

Underneath the well-judged sardonic edge that undercuts many of these poems there is a further whiff of longing for some version of this London cabbie’s extensible Knowledge. This pushes slighter pieces like the lists of ‘The Search Engine’, the borrowed if not found poem, ‘Mandeville’s Kingdom’ and the plethora of fantastic but feasible American newspapers in ‘Press’, all of which point towards experiences the poet has not had but wishes to position himself beside. In ‘Lipstick’ a narrator recounts the incident when female survivors of Belsen were issued with lipstick:

For me at least
It was the darkest ring of something, seeing

How those women lay with no nightdress or sheets
But still that redness on their lips.

The urge toward significance outside the poet’s experience feels here like an over-reaching. There is a thinness to the voice which doesn’t belong to the persona as much as to the ambition to define a selected monstrosity. In ‘The Hall of Medium Harmony,’ the same impulse is ironised by a sleepless reader of a guide to China, breathily lost in the illusion of presence, ‘in the silence that follows each footstep/let fall on the black lacquer floor//of the now, of the here, where you are,/in the sunlight, blinking, abroad.’ The reader’s attention, of course, has been drawn to the melancholy of this willed illusion.

The successes of this book hark back more to the verbal ingenuity and imagistic exuberance of his background and peers, as in ‘Pug’:

You squeak when you yawn
and your tongue is unfurled
in a semi-circle, salmon-pink
on coastal rock, that trilobite

embedded in the slate
roof of your open mouth,
perfect for the mascot
of the House of Orange.

Matthew Sweeney’s latest book takes all the anxious uncertainty, the desperate appetites, the misanthropic, paranoid or violent impulses that have always infused his work, and cranks them up to the maximum. These are not poems concerned with any restraint other than that of stripping narrative to the bone, honing pace and register in order to snap the reader into each poem’s world within a line and half: ‘over the heads of the flying squad/flew a snowy owl’; ‘Unlike other times, there was no warning’; ‘He posted her a snake instructed not to bite her.’

Situations recur obsessively, like the figure being coerced by a torturer, possibly reaching their final moments; the assassin waiting for or dispatching his usually female victim; the voyager returning, usually to Ireland; the climber attempting to gain perspective, usually over Ireland; the eater or drinker failing to contain their dissatisfaction. The result is liberated writing which exhibits a skewed beauty of its own, a barely-contained world in which spells sit alongside artworks, tanks flank recipes, and his leitmotif of the crashed or sunken craft, together with its decaying crew, finds yet another form, a haunted revision of the moment of the crash:

…no tree would be hit,
nor would fires whoosh through leaves
to the delight of the fool in the hill castle
out with his grappa on the rooftop,
Marlene blaring through the speaker
singing to the crashed pilot in the woods.

As the end of that poem suggests, the book is not focused as much on moments of reprieve as of remission, fate may be delayed for the span of the poem, but not escaped. Realism has given way to vision, and the dead or soon-to-die, the damned or deeply unlucky must act out or re-enact their destinies. Usually (there are ragged edges) that vision feels precisely aligned to the mechanics of craft, its perspective held within the frame of a recognisably lyrical structure in much the way that Cronenburg places his concerns within the horror genre. The analogy with cinema seems particularly apt to a poet drawn to the poem as scene, opened and closed by abrupt cuts.

Black Moon creates its own literary tradition through the intensity of its obsessions. Behind its netherworlds lurk those of writers like Flann O’Brien or Borges, and the veil between the created scenario and some actual scenario from which we might suppose it is derived seems to tremble constantly on the verge of being torn. It is, in short, writing which embraces risk, which suggests portraiture whilst delivering a completed, self-sufficient symbolic world. In this it not only evokes the involuntarily metamorphosing Sweeney of tradition, but echoes the author from whom it derives one of its more horrible images of the desire for oblivion, the Kafka of the Hunger Artist:

I nibble my foul-tasting crusts,
reach out a hand to set spinning
the globe of the moon, close my eyes
to imagine a skeleton slowly walking
across the moon’s surface, then climbing
into a crater to lie there and be still.

(Published in Poetry Review, Winter 2007)



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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