A diverse but coherent collection of poetry, drawing from twenty years of work. Sweeney is the best kind of storyteller, a poet with a rich imagination who can paint an idiosyncatic little scene and make the situation feel archetypal, and more importantly tells a good story but stops short of telling you how you should feel about it. There is a strong sense of communication with the reader in what is essentially a minimalist collection. Unlike many poets with Sweeney's creative talent, he doesn't muse on the scenes and situations he deftly paints with just a handful of brushstrokes, beyond the fact of them. The emotional response to these poems is left to the reader, to reflect on and appraise their considerable worth, and what they mean to the reader personally. Sweeney's landscape is predominantly that of serf - corpses (the already-dead), suicides (the nearly-dead), hermits and other assorted sad cases (the living dead), and those in dysfunctional relationships (the emotionally-dead) - and yet his overall mood is curiously uplifting, taking an ironic view of the trials of life, and a calm, benevolent omniscience in the face of the natural processes of death and decomposition. He also uses a wide range of geographical locations, from his native Ireland, across Europe, the Caribbean, the Arctic, and even the Moon, to create a sense of expansive space, void, isolation, but especially that existentialist sense of adventure which he presents as the only attitude which makes modern life bearable. Judging by its content, it may initally seem dour, but Sweeney's poetry is full of warmth and humour, even in its murkiest waters, and, when on his best form (my favourite is "Princess"), very rewarding. Highly recommended as an introduction to the work of this artist.
The morbidity and general anomie of the 1st two thirds are draining. 'Where is his dog now, where is it?'(His Dog) or the even bleaker (than a deathbed scene!) Melon Days ('That autumn the newspapers were numbing'). I suppose Never in Life would be a suitable addition to the corpus of corpse poems (see John Redmond's review of Michael Symonds Roberts' Corpus in Poetry Review 94/3) but after a while you lose the will to live. The sparing rhyme of A Daydream Ahead and The Aviary are the highlights and Symmetry is good sinister fun, but for the most part 'a green hat is blowing through Harvard Square/and no one is trying to catch it' - and why would they? But *then* at page 88 the whole tone surprisingly lightens (influence of Paul Durcan, perchance, namechecked on that very page?) and for the rest of the book we are in on the joke, which tends I suppose to the Gothic; among grisly ends without number is The End, perhaps the best burial poem ever. There's even some lip-smacking Dante (semi-rhyme again), though the tense of the last line troubles me - is that an Irishism?
When I want to be depressed I normally turn, with relish, to the short stories of Mary Lavin; now I can look out the latest Sweeney! If I want cheering up again I might turn to Gwyneth Lewis's searing yet feisty Hospital Odyssey or the anarchic-depressive Frank Kuppner or all manner of outrageous Americans. Who tend not to be depressive. Yet.
These poems by Matthew Sweeney (a poet who should be at least as well known in Ireland as Seamus Heaney or Paul Durcan but is'ent) are highly accessible, story-like scenes, often eccentric, often bizarre. The poems are short - generally one to a page. Perhaps take 3 parts J.G.Ballard to one part Seamus Heaney (I'll have to think about that myself!), and you may come up with a Donegal surrealist called Matthew Sweeney. Whatever - its very entertaining and continues to echo the more its read. Only quibble for me is that it does not include 'Sanctuary' which was published after, which I'd also recommend.