Shadow of the Owl, by Matthew Sweeney, Bloodaxe Books, 104 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1780375427
In February 1908, The Irish Times reported that William Butler Yeats, addressing the idea of “art for art’s sake”, had advanced the view that artists tend not to make art with any other purpose than to express their own feelings at a certain moment, “to express them without thought of anybody else, to express them as the bird expresses itself when it sings”. The posthumous publication of Matthew Sweeney’s final poetry collection, Shadow of the Owl, marks the culmination of the poet’s unique incorporation of fabulist sensibilities and imagery into a traditional narrative poetic approach. As the culmination of this style, which Sweeney called a type of “imagistic narrative” or “alternative realism”, the poems in Shadow of the Owl give full expression to this poet’s song.
The collection’s origins lie in Sweeney’s final year living with illness, but triumphantly the book affirms life and art in beautiful, imaginative and often humorous ways. Shadow of the Owl is divided into four parts. The first is the extraordinary twelve-stanza poem “The Owl”, which was written over twelve nights in September 2017 as Sweeney waited for the diagnosis of his condition. In this poem, the image of the owl, heard but not seen, represents the reticent harbinger of the poet’s fate: “The owl could tell more, if he wanted / but he won’t.” If the poet stays indoors and ignores the owl, will the owl go away?
. . . I don’t think so,
no, this fellow is here for the duration
of my stay on this enormous ball
and could tell right now how long that
will be, and what messy adventures
are still ahead of me, but his trick is
to keep as schtum on such stuff as
the wooden owl on my bedside table.
The poet considers various approaches to the owl. Buying a T-shirt with an owl printed on it, for example, and writing about that instead of the owl he has heard. But he realises too that it is futile to imagine the owl is not there, “like a tree / I hadn’t noticed growing”, or later, “like a pine cone / that remains unobserved”. The poet captures a beetle and exerts the same control over the insect that the owl exerts over him. He attempts to blank the owl, to prefer crows, but he knows,
The owl would laugh about these thoughts.
He’s been given the task of waiting to release,
when he can, exactly what I need to know
or what he can reveal. I admit he’s not easy
but, shit, he’s the dumb card I’ve been dealt
and I have to pretend to like him.
The owl appears in one of the poet’s dreams and leaves brown feathers in the kitchen, which later disappear. By the end of the tenth stanza the poet tries to control his impatience (“I’d welcome whatever the owl had to say”), but in the eleventh he draws an image of the owl at which he fires arrows until it ends up looking “machine-gunned”.
In the poem’s finale, against a backdrop of Malbec wine and Baltic jazz, the poet acknowledges that the silence of the owl “was more than [he] could bear”. He asks the night what is to be his fate ‑ “Where am I going?” ‑ and in response he hears again the owl’s call. “You cowardly bastard!”, Sweeney roared back, “and / sprayed the arrows all over the blackened world.”
When in October 2017 Sweeney was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, the poet responded directly with this collection’s second part, “The Sequence”, a series of fabulist poems portraying an individual hounded by multifarious forces bent on destroying him. “An Invitation to Dinner” turns out to be “an elaborate trap”, just as an invitation to play a chess match is “another trap” (“The Chess Match”). The animals persecuting the poet include an albatross (“The Albatross”), a crocodile (“Crocodile”), and again, the owl: “What does the creature want from me tonight? / I thought he’d done with me, done his worst” (“Shadow of the Owl”). While listening on another occasion to Baltic jazz, the poet is attacked or “hit” by a mysterious “very loud singing”, until “finally it stopped / so suddenly I shrieked” (“Sweet Song”); and in “Stench” he is similarly assaulted by a range of smells including putrefied meat, camel vomit, and donkey shit:
And last, la pièce de resistance, the unmistakable
stench of my own rotting corpse, even though
I was still above ground and able to smell it.
All these smells comingled, like a symphony.
Whoever had masterminded this, I had to take
my trilby off to him or her, and fling it out the door.
I also had to either move out or purchase a gas mask.
These lines express not only Sweeney’s sense of humour but also the fact that this book addresses the taboo of death, and specifically imminent death. But death is not a new theme in Sweeney’s work: in 2002, Sean O’Brien, the British poet and critic, suggested that perhaps the “core” of Sweeney’s “alternative realism” is “the attempt to come to terms with [death]”. The owl has delivered its message ‑ what is to be done now? The poet rejects the train “to the black camp” with “no skeletal / survivors liberated by a victorious militia”; he wants “to stay off that train as long as I can” and “to be himself till the last minute”.
In this book’s foreword, the poet’s partner, Mary Noonan, also a poet, refers to a late interview in which Sweeney confirmed that his own experience accorded with Franz Kafka’s remark in his last diary entry in 1923 about his own terminal illness: “It happens whether you like it or not. [ . . .] More than a consolation is: You too have weapons.” When Sweeney’s sick bed becomes his enemy (“The Sick Bed”),
. . . [I]t disapproves of my writing — my weapons,
as Kafka put it. Well, I won’t stop firing them, not
for a long time. I might even write about the bed.
The third and fourth parts of this collection, “Other Poems” and the brief “Last Poems”, address a range of mainly lighter themes. Donegal-born Sweeney lived in Cork since 2008 and the poems include references to Cork landmarks such as the Shakey Bridge and Fitzgerald’s Park. Other Irish locations such as Buncrana and Hook Head also feature, but there is a strong international flavour to these parts of the collection, which is fitting given that Sweeney’s poetry, which was greatly influenced by German and east European literature, is itself internationally renowned. He lived for periods in Timișoara in Romania and in Berlin, and we read here of an imperfect visit to Dubrovnik (“Dubrovnik”); an evening reading Hemingway’s Spanish books in Chinchón’s main square (“The Lamppost, Plaza Mayor, Chinchón”); and several visits to Sète in France, birthplace of Paul Valéry (“Pizza à Sète”, “Taxi à Sète; “Three Heads”, and “Translating Paul Valéry”).
In “What a True Fan Has to Do”, the poet gets a job as a waiter on Madrid’s Plaza de Santa Ana in order to be near the statue of Federico García Lorca. The poet tells of getting the job from a Mexican boss (“‘We Mexicans and Irish go back a long way,’ he said, / or I think he did”), of wondering why Lorca is holding a dove rather than reading a poem, and of what drinks he served and when. As his street-Spanish improves he plans “to write the poems Lorca hadn’t written / and get him world famous all over again”. Each night the poet reads Lorca poems aloud, and once he reads aloud “the whole of The House of Bernarda Alba”. It is noticeable that instead of the obscure references found in so much modern poetry, Sweeney writes in a straightforward and colloquial way. It is not a big surprise to find The House of Bernarda Alba mentioned in a poem about Lorca, and in general, recurring references to the cheese and wine and jazz and espresso coffee enjoyed by the poet are preferred to any esoteric reference-points. They form the quotidian context of Sweeney’s “alternative realism”, and this is why Bill Swainson, one of the poet’s former publishers, remarked in an obituary on his “simultaneously oblique and direct approach to the world”.
It is important to note too that Sweeney’s direct and colloquial style means that his poetry “tells” as much as it “shows”. Indeed, to borrow from Swainson, it does the two things simultaneously. This is significant because it gives the lie to the idea, particularly popular on the workshop circuit, that poetry must always show rather than tell. Poetry, as e. e. cummings put it and as Matthew Sweeney understood, is “strictly and distinctly a question of individuality”. Sweeney’s individuality shines through in this moving and inspiring collection that joins with Yeats’s idea of art for the sake of sincerity ‑ whether showing or telling ‑ “for the sake simply of natural speech coming from some simple, natural child-like soul”.
Tim Murphy is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019) and The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019).