My Life as a Painter, by Matthew Sweeney, Bloodaxe Books, 80 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780374147
“Moongaze more often” might just be the phrase that encompasses Matthew Sweeney’s twelfth and final collection, My Life as a Painter. And why? Well, you’ll likely go blind from staring into the sun too long. And the consistently changeable moon, that nocturnal body that rules the tides, might just be worth keeping more of an eye on as we keep watch for a tide to lift all boats. So whether a new moon, a full moon, a super moon, a black moon or a blue moon, it’s in the light of the moon we’ll catch the “alternative realism” that is Matthew Sweeney’s poetry.
Almost forty years ago Jake Burns screamed “alter your native land” into the microphone at The Coach Inn, Omagh; the cry from the Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers’ newly released punk anthem Alternative Ulster. Altering their native land is what 66.4 per cent of the electorate did last May 25th when they marched their way to the referendum. It took some imagination in the sectarian North from Jake Burns and his band to scream that song into the microphone, and it took some fierce imagination from those women who began the march decades ago to convince the rest of us not just of the possibility of an alternative island, but then how it could be realised. And though stating the obvious here, it’s worth remembering that altering reality takes a hefty dose of imagination from artist or otherwise. And imagination is what the poet Matthew Sweeney was in no shortage of, as he showed throughout his previous eleven collections:
In 1965, a woman blew a flock
of glass sheep, wool and all, each
of them with a tinkly baa. In 1993,
in Sète, the harbour glassblower
blew a lighthouse with its own light,
and in 2004, in Timișoara, three
glassies blew a new solar system
that they let float up and away.
(“A History of Glassblowing”, from Horse Music)
This is not to say that Sweeney was a “political” poet – whatever that may mean, but rather, that his was a poetry of great possibility, a poetry of hope – for all its apparent darkness – a poetry of an imagined, alternative reality.
His poems can alter you, dear reader. As you trace this painterly life, your heartbeat speeds up or slows down, your breath comes quicker, your brain patterns are given a bump. You may even find your perception, so dearly held, being taken out for a walk. And most of all, you may discover an empathy, a “feeling into” that you never knew you had:
We would be fine if you let us
be ourselves, but I am just a
parrot who has learned to speak.’
You may find yourself shifted across the border into a new Republic of Words, your native land having been altered of a sudden by the poet. So in this sense Sweeney’s poems are indeed political poems. As arresting as the best of them, if you’re to take Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s word on it that the protest poemsong must “show people a side of themselves they don’t know is there” This revelatory poetry of Sweeney’s is also a deeply personal one. A poetry that “extend[s] as distinct from transposing the experience of the spectator” in the words of John Berger discussing Cézanne. And though he doesn’t appear in this painterly life Sweeney has coloured for us, his poems are as much Cézanne as they are Goya or even Van Gogh, whose palette adorns the cover of My Life as a Painter.
The collection is bright with painters: Paula Modersohn-Becker, LS Lowry, Van Gogh, Goya of course, one of whose caprichos adorned Sweeney’s recent collection Inquisition Lane. These painters are, for the most part, painters of possibility. Most remarkably Modersohn-Becker, who moved with Rilke and Rodin for a period and whom Rilke once described as “half held in thrall, yet already seizing control” and who was one of the first women to paint herself nude but who died tragically young in childbirth. It’s telling that there’s no Francis Bacon here, about whom Berger claimed “there are no alternatives offered in Bacon’s world, no way out”. For in Sweeney’s poems, there is always a way out, though the way out is more often than not the alternative exit you may not have noticed, or dreamed.
And I’d keep my eyes closed as I was driven
away, knowing the rats were out dancing
in a ring that went round so fast, they must
take off. I’d see them so clearly above the roofs
that I’d become one of them, squeaking louder
than any of the others, loving the feel of the
tail in my mouth, and the sensation of flying.
And of course these are painterly poems. Grotesques in many cases. But not in the simple dictionary sense of “wildly formed, of irregular proportions” –which certainly doesn’t fit Sweeney’s artful play of sonnet, sestina and haiku. But grotesque as something revelatory, like the images found in Roman grottos, the “grottescos” which have Sweeney shining a light from inside the cave. “Uncouth” yes, and often, thankfully, “clownishly absurd”.
You’re right, there are grotesques who shine
a dark light that lures us just as the sirens
tried to lure Odysseus, and yes, maybe we
ourselves are among the grotesques, but
there are also the beautiful who, if we’re
lucky, save us from ourselves, and validate
the sun’s light, and maybe also the moon …
Sweeney, brightening our horizons with his alternative light source, was without doubt, one of the beautiful people.
These are also cinematic poems. There’s the setting scene: the house, the road up to Sunday’s Well, a flooded Cork City. Then from off camera appear the unannounced neighbour’s cat, the Wellesian man from the shadows, the beggar on the road or simply “that man behind me”. These off-camera figures step out of the shadows, unexpected, though their presence is wholly acceptable in the poem. It’s as if they were always there, as if the whole poem scene had been elaborately constructed for just their entrance, as if they were destined to arrive.
As much Welles as Kafka, Jarmusch as Chaplin, there is essentially a pre-destined set to these poems, to their construction. Events occur in and around them, and sometimes wander right through them. And that outside world, brought in by the unannounced wanderer, is often an unwelcome visitor, a darkness from beyond the cave. So while the poet can indeed be painter, it is to cinema that we’re more often directed by Sweeney’s poems. A darkly, sinister cinema. And what does a Matthew Sweeney poem do in that darkness?
[…] learn to deal with the chill, apply the same
discipline to the dark, forget that you began
far down, and you’ll know where you’re headed.
At their cinematic narrative best, these poems expose us to the possibility of anything, to everything. They give hope in possibility revealed. Though just as often they leave a man ‑ it’s nearly always male ‑ sat in stasis, trapped,
a brown bear in an office
looking for a way out
held there by some invisible force; a door that can’t be opened, an inevitable darkness above or below that can’t be avoided. Like those repeated dreams of childhood, when some Wellesian figure is coming at you from the back shadows and your feet are stuck. There’s no screaming way out. No matter how often the dream repeats itself though, the figure never catches you, in fact the figure never even shows its face, it remains a shadow, a sinister hint, the sense of something to fear –and that sense is enough to paralyse the child you were, to leave you petrified. But of course, as we all now know, it’s only the fear that holds you in place, that holds you in check, that stops you from doing something, anything. So what to do?
Well, the figure in a Sweeney poem marches on. Though he slips in the mud, he marches on:
into the teeth of the north wind. There was a minuscule
polar bear in each gust, and they were biting, biting,
then spitting bits of me out onto the road, where rats
could devour them […]
And he marches on nonetheless, or because of it, marches back to the “homeplace” where he gains entry, uncorks a bottle of Rioja and, lips above the brimful glass, ignores the north wind. Or, he simply dances around the trap that awaits him:
worry, I’ll have my own jar of
honey, and I’ll be wearing blue
sunglasses and a porkpie hat
and I’ll be whistling a polka
as I blunder down the corridor.
So while there are Matthew Sweeney poems that are subversive, that are rebellious in their imagination, there is always an alternative.
If cinema is the Dream Factory where anything, we’re told, is possible; if the short story is a glimpse of the life, the possible life, being lived; and the poem (hyperbole warning), well the poem can simply save a life, what then of the narrative, cinematic poem in full Technicolor? Does it even exist? Yes, it’s Matthew Sweeny’s My Life as a Painter. And it shows the life in the process of being saved. The poet can indeed be a painter. God a goat. The woman in the moon our next great leader. My Life as a Painter is the way out, the way on.
Read on, dear reader, read on.
Matthew Sweeney died, aged sixty-six, on August 5th this year. His poetic work was translated into Dutch, Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, Latvian, Mexican Spanish, Romanian, Slovakian and German.
Keith Payne was the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications) was published in 2015. It was followed in 2016 by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) .