Essays: Sweeney in the basement |
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Sweeney in the basement

by Nichola Deane

‘Sweeney’s in the basement mixing up the medicine…’ He’ll be up in a minute. Matthew Sweeney: dealer in bad dreams, secular John-the-Baptist, wolf in Tom Waits clothing. If I can coax him out, you’ll hear, you’ll touch and taste, see, smell with all your senses newly deranged. The Rimbaud of Donegal would never call himself by any such name (he’s too busy working in his monkish cell) but there are a good number of things about this poet that deserve to be brought blinking into the light.

OK, so I’m making big claims, but after the trip I’ve taken, working backwards from Black Moon (2007) to A Round House (1983), I can show you I’m good for them. But before I begin, I want you to do something for me. Remember one or two things about your childhood. I think you know which memories I mean: the ones where you are alone, and your aloneness feels very new and cold. Perhaps the weather is trying to get into the house and the sky is hostile like slate. Perhaps you have just read a book, and the book lies abandoned on your lap as its animal characters leap up from the fable: ‘the goose,’ the ‘galloping donkey’ and the ‘snorting boar’ are racing down into some fissure of your sharp and rocky mind. None of these animals can quiet or reassure you as the adults promised they would. Halfway between love and terror, you read and dream, returning time and time again to the figure of the wolf:

standing at the start,
howling his head off
is the tied-up wolf.
(‘The Race,’ Black Moon)

Now you’re in a Sweeney poem. But don’t move. He’s standing right behind you, and if you think you feel icy metal at the nape of your neck, you’re probably right. The gun is loaded, by the way, and if he tells you to walk, I’d keep on walking. Push the cellar door open with your foot and take a seat on the kitchen chair near the unvarnished table. Don’t think yet about where you are. He will show you soon enough.

Matthew Sweeney has been writing his unique kind of witchcraft for over a quarter-century, and he has been prolific. Whilst most poets’ language migrates, Sweeney’s development has been a matter of intensification: no circumnavigation here, just digging further and further down. If you look back as far as A Round House you will find poems filled with objects such as boats, a hammock, marijuana, whiskey, a gun. The situations are various types of solitary: in a roundhouse by the sea; lying awake alone, listening to the woman next door reaching orgasm; a lone German hitchhiker no-one will stop to pick up. What happens as we head into the later books is that similar objects and situations appear: cars and bicycles, cacti, more boats, more whiskey, more guns, an increasingly high body count, lonely encounters with crazed narrators; but these are lit differently, with a blue filter. Sweeney’s kind of blue is a chilly light that sharpens edges and deepens contrasts. Many poems feature the colour blue: ‘Blue Shoes,’ ‘Blue Eggs,’ ‘The Colour of Telephones,’ ‘The Blue Taps,’ the wonderful ‘Blue Train.’ Even if they don’t explicitly feature the colour, however, all are a version of the blues, gruff and soulful like Sweeney’s beloved Tom Waits.

Blue Sweeney may be, but by the time we arrive at Black Moon, the blue we’re talking about isn’t the blue of

a blue-painted room
where the sun, at dawn
comes down the stairs
from the roof garden.
(‘The Colour of Telephones,’ Blue Shoes)

Rather, it’s blue-black for the most part, a feral colour: in ‘Black,’ where we wander into a world of perpetual night, the only survivors are ‘rat-hunters, blood-drinkers, ignorant of the sun.’ Wolfish and wild, his shadows are made of a glowering blue as his focus stays where it is and steadies to a knife’s point.

This isn’t to suggest, however, that his poems are all darkness. He does do light, lightness and delicacy. However, the light is moonlight, the lightness is zero-gravity and the delicacy is likely to be a hint of something sweet aching on your palate. In fact, any wildness is offset by humour, a painfully acute sensuality, a disciplined plainness of syntax and lexis. Although Sweeney is likely to have a stash of Bushmills somewhere in his cellar, he is unfailingly balanced, lithe and sober when he speaks. His appetites may rage but his lines come out pure and spare and true. There’s something filthy and yet pristine about this:

Sitting, upright, on the sofa,
sandwiched between a pair of twins,
both blond, both beautiful,
wearing the same red leather
miniskirts, the same faces,
the same green sparkling eyes,
I find myself thinking of melon,
green fleshed, cool from the fridge,
sliced cross ways in half,
the seeds scooped out, the hole
filled with chilled Sauternes.
(‘No Sugar’)

Note that we begin in some pornographic dream and note how the turn into metaphor shows us the sensual man and his hunger. ‘Upright’ is desire that hardly needs to speak its name, and –God! — that melon — a risky tactic, as for a split second we seem to stray into Carry On double entendre — until we realise the image is far from being coy or crass. Sweeney wants to create a particular taste here, to stir up a desire, to evoke two delicious anatomies. He evokes pornography only to strip bare its hackneyed images. What we find is a profoundly erotic imagination at work, and one so skilled that it has no need of adjectives more fancy than ‘green,’ ‘red,’ ‘chilled’ and ‘sparkling.’ Sweeney the Lech is also Sweeney the Ascetic. Even at his most sensual, he rejects on principle baroque noun-phrases and any verb that might tear the fabric of a sentence. Spare tetrameters and trimeters are his most frequent choice and also serve his puritan aesthetic: with these metres, premodifiers sound like luxuries, and a showy verb can seem like unpardonable decadence.

Sweeney gives but he likes even better to take away. He makes you fast to increase your appetite; he makes you fixate on what isn’t there. And herein lies his greatness and the chief obstacle in bringing it into focus: Sweeney’s extreme reticence. He works at night and his activity is underground. He has a gospel:

Be happy
with the tiny red flowers
it sometimes conjures for you.
(‘Secrets of a Cactus’)

But the good news is hardly an answer to anything. ‘Tiny red flowers’ appear from time to time, but he sounds here like the Baptist hallucinating in the desert, starved into suppressed fury by his diet of locusts and wild honey. That’s all there is, he snarls. Deal with it. Unlike his near contemporary, Don Paterson, who advances and attacks, Sweeney seems to be in perpetual retreat. As a result, the poems seem to deliberately, stubbornly underestimate themselves. But they should not be underestimated. Particularly in the later work (Sanctuary is especially fine) there is buried treasure everywhere. It’s just that the cussed wee bastard won’t give you a map. Whether or not you find the treasure comes down to making a map in re-reading. If you choose to simply body surf across the sands you won’t find too much. So make like Sweeney himself and dig deep. No, that won’t do. Deeper. Watch.

Sweeney’s poems work in secret, in the dark, as we know. Like the cactus in ‘Secrets of a Cactus,’ they have no time for stupid questions about their inner life and always offer a ‘spiky defence’ to the unwary reader. To be appreciated, they demand a certain kind of intelligence, an intelligence of acute sensory perception, an intelligence like the poet’s which seems able to create a feast from a handful of meagre ingredients. What’s required is a look and look and yearn approach. Desire but don’t take. Immaculate consumption: read it and be there.

Although ‘being there’ can mean ending up in the torture chamber, it would be a mistake to think that the only Sweeney scenarios that count involve ‘mayhem in the tea-leaves,’ civil war and anarchy. Always, in each poem, beats a hidden longing. No matter how prickly the poem, there is always beauty in there, like a concealed weapon, miniature and deadly. He explains this in ‘The Blue Flower:’

In the heart of the stone
is a flower — a blue flower
tinier than a butterfly’s eye,
and the only way to capture it
is to swallow that stone,
then rescue it again
before throwing it at the wall,
the outside wall, while incanting
all the sacred names for cat
in every known language,
and dancing a tortured jig
to no music — only then
will the stone crack open,
so your fingers can enter
and pick a flower, carefully
as handling a cornea, then bring it
to your distant lover
who’ll wear it on her forehead,
dead centre, like an extra eye,
one she’ll see the future with.

Within the stone’s a flower, but only acts of eating, defecation, humiliation and fury allow the flower’s release. But within the flower’s an eye, and within that eye a gift of seeing further than you can see. Not an advance, but a retreat into a world happens here, and this is Sweeney’s peculiar gift. He doesn’t take you out of your experience but leads you further into it than you expected.

He often makes a joke of this jolt into strangeness, as he does in a poem such as ‘Sanctuary’ where he plays Cary Grant of the Apocalypse, asking you to

Stay awhile. Don’t go just yet.
The sirens are roaming the streets,
the stabbing youths are out in packs,
there’s mayhem in the tea-leaves.

You were about to leave, unsure of your host, until his dark humour persuades you otherwise; that and some powerful sensual incentives:

I have a Bordeaux you’ll like,
let’s open it. (I’ve a second bottle, too.)
And a goat’s cheese to fast for,
also a blue from the Vale of Cashel.

If food is foreplay here, the ‘civil war’ erupting on the streets outside acts as a comic frightener, pushing you into his embrace: ‘Hear that — wasn’t it a gunshot?’ Grant (or is it Tony Curtis parodying Cary Grant?) has got you. But who cares? Cary Grant is Cary Grant, and with all that anarchy out there, you are better off indoors. The end-of-the-world seduction he practices is wild but Catch-A-Thief elegant.

You might start a Sweeney poem with a joke, or a caress. Often, you begin in all innocence, but you never end that way. Take ‘Black Beams,’ which starts off as a straight-laced library tour? and finishes somewhere else entirely, with a close up of a computer monitor on which a young woman is

instant-messaging her lover
who’s undressed her,
and is pouring honey on her,
and she’s writing This is crazy, but go on!

So where are you? In a state of erotic shock, that’s where. The library has melted away and you’re on your own with one of Sweeney’s seducers, even though you swore you wouldn’t stay this long. This time, you’re lucky: there isn’t a gun to your head. It could all so easily have been different, and in the next few seconds it might be. Death and chaos or ‘tiny red flowers’? Who knows? But don’t worry, he won’t keep you forever. He doesn’t have to. He knows that you’ll be back of your own accord. Look! The key’s under the mat. It’s left and down the stairs. The bottle’s open and the wine’s relaxed and waiting. And no, that isn’t a shadow among the blue shadows in the corner of the room. You must keep still. Don’t turn round just yet. Don’t even breathe. He’s close, so very close behind you.

© Nichola Deane