Poetry Review | When I Closed My Eyes I Was Elsewhere

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be in Dublin at the same time that Poetry Ireland held an event at their building off Parnell Square on the place of Edmund Spenser in Irish poetry. The discussion involved Trevor Joyce, Leanne O’Sullivan, John McAuliffe, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Each of these poets has in their own way engaged with Spenser, his work and his awkward place in the Irish literary canon. Ireland features heavily in The Faerie Queene, his Mutabilitie cantos and perhaps most infamously in his political writings – particularly his View of the Present State of Ireland. 

It was at this event that I first heard readings from her new collection,  A Quarter of an Hour, published by Bloodaxe Books. Several of the poems in this collection refer to Spenser, specifically “Eumnestes” and “Anamnestes”. The figures of Eumnestes – the old man who is supposed to be the keeper of memory – and Anamnestes – the young man tasked with helping the older man – appear in Spenser’s Faerie Queen. In Leanne O’Sullivan’s hands they become memory keepers of many things including

How [someone] listened, carefully, watched for signs,
for trails, or deciphered how a peal of light
falling through the trees could mark
roughly a way in, the way out again,

Finding our way in, remembering and re-assembling what has been lost and what is being lost lie at the core of this collection, a series of meditations on her husband’s illness. 

For those who don’t know him, Andrew King lectured in English at University College Cork and was famous with his students for his wildly patterned shirt and tie combinations and his deep affection for Frank Sinatra. His illness, which was sudden seemed an unusually cruel one to befall a man so in love with words.

O’Sullivan has done monumental work in writing these poems and it is testament to her skills as a writer that poems that might appear maudlin or sentimental, gauche even, are anything but. Love and affection is present throughout these poems. The agonies of seeing a loved one suffer are transformed into a means of celebrating the fact of being here at all in the first place. Although there is a supposed ecological angle to the poems, I find this a bit of a stretch. This is no call to environmental arms in my view: rather, it is a sustained examination on the abiding power of love that can bind two people together. In that respect at least, the poems can have some small claim to universality.

Defining anyone as an “x place” poet has always struck me as a horribly reductive descriptor, although many may well see O’Sullivan chiefly as a “Cork poet”. Another so-called “Cork poet” – because he has been based there for many years now – is Matthew Sweeney. Originally from Donegal, to anyone familiar with the scene of Cork poetry, Matthew will be a well-known figure. Indeed, he is one of the more prolific Irish poets working today. His newest collection, also published by Bloodaxe,  My Life as a Painter, is his twelfth. 

Like O’Sullivan’s A Quarter of an Hour, the release of this new collection from Sweeney is overshadowed slightly by news of his own illness. In a recent interview with the Irish Examiner ahead of the book’s launch Sweeney revealed that he has been diagnosed with Motor Neuron’s Disease. Asked if poetry has helped him cope with the news he responded:

While I was waiting for the diagnosis, and since that horrible news, I have been writing a big sequence of strange, dark poems, sometimes blackly humorous, that has become my response to what is happening to me. I try to never allude to the illness directly. It’s possible I will have to drop those few pieces, and just stay in the weird, metaphorical film world that the bulk of the poems conjure up. Their darkness will leave no reader in any doubt of what I’m really writing about. These poems are not in this new collection although some will soon be starting to appear in periodicals. I do think that having the positive attitude I needed to write these can only be beneficial to my dealing with the illness

Whatever shape these new “strange, dark… blackly humorous” poems of Sweeney’s will ultimately take, we can be assured that they will retain much of the same strange air as some of the poems in this collection. For some of these are very strange, and occasionally arch, poems. Indeed, I sometimes find Sweeney’s poems hard going and elusive. 

Tongue is held firmly in cheek throughout, and colour abounds: blue cabbage and blue schnapps, red wine, black canes and yellow poles all feature. The painterly aspects of the collection come in “Dialogue with an Artist” – specifically LS Lowry and musings on Van Gogh’s gun “waiting to tattoo [his] chest.” 

Van Gogh’s palette graces the cover of the book – a mish-mash of colour that holds in it a kind of abstract “painting” all its own. It’s a tool that shows the artist at work, thoughts concretised in colour. In the title poem of the collection, Sweeney ponders how if he were a painter, he might depict three birds his father shot. He would, he muses, “stay faithful to the old concept of the still life”, but admits “I might add a few colours that weren’t there.” 

If Leann O’Sullivan’s new collection concerns itself with retrieval and remembering, then the poems of Matthew Sweeney might best be understood as poems which add colours to a scene that weren’t actually there but have been placed there by the poet’s fertile imagination. Like Frank O’Hara before him, Sweeney knows he is a poet and not a painter, but this doesn’t prevent him from developing a palette that is rich and occasionally wild.

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