Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Black Moon - Review

Black Moon is Donegal-born Matthew Sweeney’s ninth collection. Its poems are packed with disturbing images – a race of animals to the death, prisoners forced to sign papers they don’t understand, a nation in a sunless future grown so used to suicide-hangings from lampposts that they barely notice the bodies. There is plenty of darkness in this book, as the title suggests.

Even everyday transactions become problematic. When a voice asks, “What size of shoes has he?” down a phone line, met only with a fire siren and shrill whistling, and delivery is then promised, the result is un-ease, the suspicion of death or disappearance, a dialling tone. The long, complex syntax of the poem gives the impression of time passing in constant anxiety.

Many poems are politically charged, many concern people who are trapped, embittered, at a loss. One of the most striking poems is The Snowy Owl, in which the owl swoops down as a firing squad executes a woman. The owl gets stained with the woman’s blood and then seems to glare at the men,

before swooping off, barely missing
the head of one, making them all
turn to watch it glide away, and hear
one more oohoo echo through the sky.

Without a word of explanation, the imagery contains ideas of innocence, wonder, guilt, fear, and possible judgement.

Matthew Sweeney writes in plain language, but with a subtlety of detail that resonates in the reader’s mind. Most of the poems are imaginative and unsettling, not quite taking the path you might expect. The rhythms are so smooth and unobtrusive at times that you almost forget you’re reading a text and instead find yourself transported within the dark world of the verse.

There were a number of poems which I felt didn’t work so well. Sweeney’s plain delivery depends on a fluidity of thought, clever use of syntax, and surprising imagery, for its impact. When these aspects aren’t so much present, the poems can feel insubstantial. The Scream tells of the troubled conscience of a man on a ship, who hears the screams of those he’s killed even over the storm and noise on board, and who throws himself over the side. I heard only the sound of melodrama. The Curry has the narrator arrive in a room filled with tell-tale evidence of a carry-out curry eaten earlier. But how had it got there and how can the narrator get hold of one around the airport? The problem is that I couldn’t care less about either the question or the solution (a pizza “brazen/ with chilli and garlic”).

That said, not many of the poems fall into that category. The bulk is pretty good. They are mainly narrative poems that tell a story and leave whatever resonance they have to do its work without appearing to have overt designs on the reader. Matthew Sweeney is best when reflecting on the disconcerting and mysterious and when creating strong and sometimes humorous images liable to stick in a reader’s mind.

The Snake posted to a woman in a long cardboard tube, “instructed not to bite her”, and then a second urged to do the opposite, isn’t a poem I’ll forget in a hurry. In The Fishermen, a man’s failure to catch a fish on his own leads him to stand alongside all the other fishermen, where he learns:

…the stupendous sense
of having multiple rods, all
sticking out in parallel. Today,
for example, I have four, and still
I’ve caught nothing, but the line on one
shook twice…

One of my favourite poems was The Sandal, which concerns a single Italian sandal washed up on a beach. The woman who finds it is Sicilian and rather than believing it useless without its twin, goes through an elaborate ritual, which at first seems like an artwork. After mounting it on black card, she :

glued an anchovy skeleton beneath it,
and above it, a dried scorpion,
sprinkled it with sea water,
said two dialect prayers

before kissing it and finally hurling it at the full moon. The comedy, mingled with parody of folk superstition, is humorous, unpredictable, and poignant.

The image of two drivers fighting over an embassy official’s suitcase at the airport is equally vivid and funny, and could also be seen as a cartoon metaphor of political struggle and ambition, in Ireland and beyond:

He felt like the rope in a tug of war.
He wanted to grab his bag and run
but each of them had it by the handle
and neither was letting go.

Matthew Sweeney’s poems are snapshots of contemporary life, often life at its darkest, lived by people who feel trapped and weighed down. Its strange humour and liveliness give it a light touch, its disconcerting subject-matter an underlying seriousness of purpose. It’s a good read.


Anonymous said...

I read it some time ago when it first came out, and have to say I was quite disappointed -- I'd probably heard too much hype surrounding it to approach it neutrally/without expectation. Much of it felt like a gaggle of ragnarok/apocalypse/end of the world images/allusions thrown together without much real delving. I suppose in its way, that's refreshing. The Snake was probably one of my favourites of the bunch.

Rob said...

I missed the hype.

I reckon the book refuses to delve deeper than it thinks it can. But some of the poems are more multi-layered that they at first seem.

Unknown said...

Hearing him read them himself adds an extra layer too. My favourite is Black Moon itself - the dry, wry humour running through it is almost chuckle raising.