Inverted Night, by John W Sexton, SurVision Books, 38 pp, € 6.99, ISBN 978-1912963058
In David Lerner’s poem “Mein Kampf”, he writes of a “carnival of dread” and how he wants his verse to be a “savage sideshow / about to move to the main arena”. These words and the tempestuous tone of that rant (which was also a kind of manifesto) came to mind immediately when I read the first poem of John W Sexton’s splendid new volume Inverted Night. In Sexton’s “Earthright” he is telling you straight from the off that things are going to get a bit hairy, that “we have come to tear out your teeth as you sleep”. This aint no disco then, as Lerner said in that same ornery poem, quoting Talking Heads, and it seems Sexton wants to jive to a similar beat here: no time for dancing, or lovey dovey, there’s simply no time for that, we’ve got a quick collection of surrealist poetry to get through, you’re either in, and ready to have your mind blown (Lerner: “I want people to hear my poetry and / weep, scream, disappear, start bleeding”) or you can go and read something quaint about stones or ponds or the way seasons change.
The term surrealist might put the average poetry reader (or any reader) off, but alarm yerselves not, Sexton wants you to open to the idea of thinking you into being. He says as much in the second line of his poem “The Snails”. With these poems he wants you to “wake for the first time”, and that is the gauntlet-throw-down of such verse ‑ they are constantly making you invest time and thought, inverting such thoughts or thought patterns as the title of the book suggests (“The street is and isn’t. I take the isn’t bus.”); while this may be challenging, and it certainly is, it can also be thoroughly, engagingly, mind-bogglingly fun (the teeth-tearing violence didn’t last all that long, we get no more mouth savagery until the ninth poem, “The Poem of the Future” and “the thick thread that binds his lips is dull with blood”.) Consider the inverting you have to do with these lines:
My husband will be back soon. Although he knows nothing,
It is from him that I learnt everything. I have some idea
Of the snail, helpless in its enigmatic majesty. But of course,
I’m long gone. No one had time to question my answers.
The fun is in the making sense when lateral or literal thinking is not immediately available to you, when “The door to the snail is the snail itself”. This is the joy of these offerings (you’ll have to put up with a few snails in the first few poems, and not only that but the snails are neither him nor her, but “both and neither”, now, get your workaday head around that!).
The sense of fun and of confounding expectations continues in the fifth poem “The Changing Room”:
In the changing room she tried on a yellow dress
And looked at herself in the long mirror.
But the yellow dress was a mask, not a dress,
So all she could see was a stranger in a blue coat.
Perhaps you are reminded of that weird internet meme that did the rounds a few years ago when some people saw a gold dress while others a blue. Sexton may very well be slyly alluding to that and the way we see or think we see anything, but the important thing to remember and enjoy about these poems is that no sooner have you stepped inside them than rugs get pulled directly from under you. And this no bad thing at all. It’s like when you visit a hall of mirrors, you want your body to be distorted, you allow yourself to be witnessed in other forms, in other shapes that are still, in essence, you: that is the feeling you get from most of these pages, the words, the lines, make sense, of course they do, we understand language, we are able to read, but the forms, the accumulation of words and lines and their spaces can be distorted, enjoyably so, as long as we know what we are dealing with. (I’ve just realised that I’ve completely mixed my metaphors here, going way too fast from rugs to mirrors: perhaps that is the effect these poems have upon me, the busy mind refusing to settle.)
In “The Birth” we are given plain and simple images to begin with: clouds, plums (a wink or nod to William Carlos Williams?), rain, and cement (a joke about concrete imagery?), but again it is not long until we are surprised by something unexpected, this time “a rhinoceros is born from the new drive in the driving rain”. Again the literary allusions are there (Ionesco’s rhinoceros) if you want to avail of them, and I am reminded too of Frederick Seidel’s surprising baby elephant “running along the ledge across / The front of an apartment building ten stories up”; it is the sheer soundjoy however of the repetition of “drive/driving” and the next stanza’s wonderful image of “the turning womb of the concrete-mixer” that win you over. Who knew being constantly surprised could be so gleeful?
Wildlife, (foxes, beetles, owls, gasping fish, finches, badgers, alleyway cats and unassuming hedgehogs), a mainstay of Sexton’s poetry generally, stalk these pages, lending us the notion that while the natural world is visible, even tangible, we have to be aware that they too, the creatures, might surprise us.
If your heart was a clock losing its time
It would be that weasel who stole it.
But it is the job of the poet, above everything, to surprise us, to make new what we once thought of as ordinary, and for the king to be “pleased with his deception”. This kingpoet has been pleasantly deceiving us for decades now. As one of Ireland’s major, and criminally underrated poets, he has stirred us and whirred our imaginations to all kinds of frenzies, not only in his relentless quest for new forms and delights but in his mesmeric live performances too.
We should open to such a voice (and give the great man his due, he’s earned it now, move him to the “main arena”). We should open to poems like these, gifts that flip and flit from plain to poems surreal, to any verse that will make us question what we think we know, what we think we see or hear or feel. This line of thinking is of course as old as Whitman (“Shut not your doors”) and older yet, but it is no harm to be reminded.
This slim, intricate volume is a must for poetry lovers who have followed Sexton’s remarkable, restless career, and for those prepared to bend their brains to novel notions; it completely rewards the curious, adventurous reader willing to engage ‑ a hall of mirrors enthusiast on a pull-able rug … anyone? ‑ or, as he explains in “The Inverted Night”, “the sky drops its fragrance on one who looks up”.
Colin O’Sullivan is the author of Killarney Blues, The Starved Lover Sings, The Dark Manual and the forthcoming My Perfect Cousin. All his novels are published by Betimes Books. He lives in Japan with his wife and children.