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Lost Worlds

Maria Johnston

If All the World and Love Were Young, by Stephen Sexton, Penguin Books, 115 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0141 99002 6

If all the world and love were young
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue ...
Walter Raleigh, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”

It’s impossible not to linger on the title of this debut collection by Belfast poet Stephen Sexton and impossible not to have it run irresistibly into the next line of the poem by Walter Raleigh from which it is taken (“and truth in every shepherd’s tongue”) as that end-word “young” calls out to its sensuous rhyming partner “tongue” to satisfy the couplet. What must strike the reader from the outset then, is the way that word “truth” ghosts and worries the collection from the start. What is the relation between poetry and truth as the poet as game-player seeks to persuade and move the reader through the deployment of elaborate sonic, rhythmic and metaphorical devices? How might poetry, combining such deliberate strategies, reveal what is hidden to us through layers of truth, half-truth and confabulation? And how does authentic feeling fare in a work of elegy such as this (for the poet’s mother, who died of cancer in 2012) as love and loss, grief and disbelief, are manipulated into art? Described by Sexton in an article for The Irish Times as “fairly conventional pastoral poems which always concern an unreal landscape: an imaginary one, a digital one”, questions to do with reality and representation are amplified from the beginning.

Such questions are not easy ones just as this is not, despite its seemingly accessible facade, an easy collection to read. As each of the poems in this book-length elegy takes its title from a level of the Nintendo video-game Super Mario World the reader finds herself existing in split-screen; negotiating the shifting lines of the poems themselves and their bottomless hinterland of echoes and allusions while also replaying the fabricated levels of the video-game itself with their secret exits, warp pipes, moving platforms, rotating blocks and always the “enemies” attempting to throw Mario off course if not wipe him out entirely. As with so much of the best poetry, this comprises a profoundly dislocating and destabilising lived experience, in the process of which the reader is changed, challenged and brought up short not least because of the hurtling proliferation of voices and versions of the self throughout. By the end, as the sonnet “Awesome” admits: “there’s room for you in this because it’s your voice.”

Try reading these poems aloud (as I had to to my five-year-old when he caught wind of the exciting fact that I was reading a book “about” Super Mario World) and you’ll find yourself caught in your own performance of trying to make sense of words and worlds as the syntactical manoeuvres resist straightforward progress and a shimmering pixelated reality merges with a poetic one. Thanks to the lack of punctuation within the lines, the reading experience is one of stopping and starting, retracing one’s footsteps, as the syntax makes one either stumble or soar. Words slip over the lines, running into each other – the precious words of the poet’s mother indicated by a simple “she says” – at times repeating themselves in clusters, creating elisions and gaps in meaning, as if there is some secret hiding in the words if only one could rearrange them the right way. In all of this one might be reminded of Mario’s own jerky movements as he strives to get off the ground, wavers in mid-air between floating platforms, catches himself before a fall, or dithers over which door to exit and what the consequences of that move might be. Here are the opening lines of the sonnet ‘”Yoshi’s Island 1”:

Here spotted mountains and cirrus here sloping plateaux drawn down on
carnivorous plants and no sun gold by the cherish underground
fly agaric throbs everywhere with fire plants and dinosaurs.

The tone changes with the turn of the sonnet and the sonnet itself turns into the room in which (as in John Donne’s “The Canonization”) the poet must build. Thus, “the questions floating in the air / are for a future self to voice decades from now who will return / again and again to this room and these moments of watershed.” Taken as a sonnet, “Yoshi’s Island 1” expands and enlivens the sonnet tradition in contemporary Irish poetry as both, to quote Alan Gillis, “a site for experiment […] and a site of cultural memory”, and Gillis himself as an adroit sonneteer, gamester poet and troubled troubadour of the urban pastoral must be an important, if unacknowledged, influence here.

As well as a prefatory ‘Note’, the collection features an extensive Credits section which functions a little like the notes at the end of The Waste Land – both to clarify and complicate. My own first tear was shed in “Donut Ghost House” as the Credits directed me to Michael Donaghy’s proleptic elegy “Haunts”, which compresses time future and past into a desolate, vibrating shape and, in many ways, If All the World and Love Were Young is just as haunted by Sexton’s poetic predecessors. Derek Mahon’s “strange child with a taste for verse” is there in the Delftware knick-knacks of “Donut Plains 1”, Ciaran Carson provides the Shamrock Tea refreshment (and as the great Belfast meta-cartographer has surely left his own distinctive thumb-print on the whole) while that goldenrod of “Yellow Switch Palace” may well be the same variety as that in William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie”, in which “the imagination strains / after deer / going by fields of goldenrod”. Paul Muldoon as postmodern elegist (one thinks especially of his “Yarrow”) and player for mortal stakes of our time looms large throughout and his convoluted, Beckettian cancer-elegy “Incantata” as a “monument to the human heart” echoes through Sexton’s “Special World” as the words “I tried to make a monument” repeat on a loop.

So too the vocal stylings of John Ashbery, and the Orpheus of “Syringa” must be a close relation of the speaker of these poems. Indeed that epigraph from Ashbery’s “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers” (the title of which itself looks back to Andrew Marvell’s “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers”) illuminates how the landscape of these poems is ultimately the inherited landscape of poetry itself. As David Herd has observed of the fungus in the lines quoted by Sexton from Ashbery’s poem: ‘“The Picture of Little J.A.’ is itself a sponge, shaped by, because it has fully absorbed, the reading which is the history of its own birth.” Sexton passes through the poetic spirit worlds of Muldoon, Carson, Eliot, Rilke, Williams, Ashbery, Marvell, Marlowe, Donaghy, Larkin, Plath and others, making their voices new in his turn. These allusions also remind us that, as Eliot said, no poet has his complete meaning alone, a formulation which here seems a guard against loneliness itself in the face of death and the breakdown of a family unit, to become a gathering in of a poetic community; the Acknowledgments section places Sexton within a defined and enabling cohort of contemporaries based around the Seamus Heaney Centre.

Writing in the drb about how the fantasy landscapes of the seventeenth century, “make great play with light and shade, with hills and valleys”, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin observes how such scenes manage to say “not only look here, and look there, but perhaps even more insistently look at time, how it breaks up”. Time is constantly pressing on us throughout Sexton’s elegiac fantasia as the poems vary in length but remain constant at the level of line duration; each line is made up of sixteen syllables (to correspond with the Super Nintendo as a 16-bit console). Sexton’s achievement across this multi-dimensional elegy is to control and give animated shape to so much thought and experience in language that seems fresh, new and vital and brings the reader to life and on an immersive journey of descent and return. It is also his great gift to be able to inhabit the ambivalences of both language and life and to somehow, through sensitivity, invention and tact, transform not only his own experience into art but, by the same sleight of hand, transform a platform video-game into a thing of revelatory beauty. To know uncertainty and hesitation and yet go on composing in the face of death – that colourless abstract where words cannot go – is the poet’s only response and recompense. In the words of Ashbery: “Only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards”. Where Sexton will go next is anyone’s guess.

1/10/2019

Maria Johnston holds a PhD from Trinity College Dublin and is a free-lance poetry critic and teacher. Her reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of publications and she is currently co-editing a collection of essays on Irish women poets. 

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