Weapons Against the Hereafter

Matthew Sweeney, Shadow of the Owl

Bloodaxe Books, 104pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781780375427

reviewed by Daniel Fraser

There is an immediate difficulty, or perhaps rather a temptation, that presents itself when forming a response to any 'last book', particularly one produced under circumstances such as those in the background of Matthew Sweeney's final volume of poetry Shadow of the Owl. The poems it contains were largely composed in the period leading up to the author's death in August 2018 from motor neurone disease. They are poems full of portents and dark symbols, meetings with apparitions and last meal rituals. Throughout, death remains a looming presence that will never go away. Faced with such material there is a risk of eulogising rather than engaging, merely accepting the inference which most readily presents itself. The shadow of death draws up the shadow of autobiography.

However, to do so would be to do the poetry, and poet, a great disservice. Shadow of the Owl is both a vital continuation of Sweeney's poetic project and, perhaps more importantly, provides a guide for trying to uncover the strangely elusive quality his work has: what might best be described as an impenetrable transparency. His mode of writing is one in which the elements which make a particular poem a success and generate its potency seem at the same time to dissolve their traces, leaving those who try to find their edges clutching at light and dust. This transparency stems in part from the poems' approachability, their inviting atmosphere, present even in the darkest work, and effected by the narrative character of the poems, as well as their humour, their quirks and playfulness. The poems gleam with surface simplicity, appearing neither extemporised nor excessively laboured, not quite recalling the oral tradition, yet steeped in storytelling. Here is the opening stanza from the title poem:

The loudspeaker hidden in the thornbush
is pouring out Sinatra, while a sharp light
comes on above my head, and a flurry of wings
arrives from behind me, and the shadow
of the owl covers me, then recedes into the night.

The poem's lightness is disarming. The manner is conversational, the employment of images careful but unobtrusive. There is something amusingly biblical about the speaker in the thornbush, and the sudden shadow of the haunting predator brings the mark of death. Much of the best contemporary pared-back poetry works with a kind of elliptical intensity, for instance in the work of Eavan Boland, where domesticity and small, careful forms can become an activation key for a vital unspoken history.

Here the simplicity of image drives for something different, a fluidity: not a play of weight and space but a narrative movement, akin to the effacement of the veil between reader and narrator enacted by the realist mode of fiction. In doing so it allows for the subtle and other-worldly character of the work to play out on a plane of verisimilitude whilst clearing away any pre-defined emotive sentiment we might try to force on the poem from outside. Sweeney's ‘unit’ of poetry, as a result of this, tends to be the whole poem, rather than the image, line or word. It is not that there are not great lines, great images: of course there are, rather that their primary function is not individual but collective, as elements of the existential plane created by each poem.

Sweeney's poetry works to intensify the world by temporarily leading us away from it. The space it creates often seeming to operate with a kind of dream logic, with shifts of perspective, reversals and an aura of the uncanny not dissimilar to the workings of the unconscious. However, this space is also a set, a stage for Art (in this case the art of poetry) to unpack its box of tricks and perform. As anyone familiar with Sweeney's poetry will know, the show put on in this arena is a rich and varied one. Shadow of the Owl is a place replete with castles and lighthouses, sea cliffs, tightropes, condemned men, and portentous animals including the owl, a malign presence, harbinger of the news the poet cannot bear to hear. Also recurrent throughout is the Shaky Bridge, a notable landmark of the city of Cork, which becomes a motif for the hazardous, unstable architecture of the poem and the poetic art faced with the chasm of mortality. This performative character of the poems, in this case the term denoting their formal resemblance to the structure of a performance, partially explains Sweeney's longstanding flair for endings, for the funny, moving and surprising turns which regularly surface in his closing lines: his poetic approach demands them.

Crucially though, it is not the quality of the performance which is most important but the changed attention to the world, the charged effect, left after the performance has come to an end. In fact, the performance often proves not all that it is cracked up to be: the deflating reality of the world proves itself too solid a barrier to be overcome.

Sweeney's unsettling naturalism, which uses a distanced voice and the apparatus of realist narrative, as well as the tonalities of fable, is what (along with his dark humour) draws him towards one of his literary heroes, a writer who is referred to a number of times in Shadow of the Owl, Franz Kafka. Most explicit of these is the first poem in the final section of the book, 'Last Poems', titled 'Tree Trunks (after Kafka)'. The poem reconfigures one of the Czech author's most recognisable enigmatic short works. The poem is, in full:

For we are like tree trunks in the snow.
Push them, and they'll start rolling,
it seems, but that doesn't happen
because they're wedded to the ground.
This, too, of course, is an illusion.
Still, they stay piled up where they are.

The first five lines of the sestain follow the path of the note by Kafka, which (among other things) concerns the relation of metaphor to reality, of the mental image and the physical world. In the first instance, the subjective position results in an error of perspective: the trees appear not to be upright but lying down against a white background. At the level of the parable there is the play of fragility and solidity of the human condition. The phrase 'this too is an illusion' works to both indicate that human beings, along with trees, wither and die eventually, and are not eternally wedded to the ground. Another reason for the illusory status of the trees is that they are part of a text, a metaphorical comparison; that the image of black shapes on a plane of white recalls letters on a page further emphasises this fact, reminding us that none of this is real. In the final line Sweeney counters: appending a last twist of the knife to end on the timbre of reality. Though the image is not a part of the material world, it cannot escape beyond its confines.

This failing of the poem, of the wild narratives, the 'weapons' constructed against the marching of death, is inevitable. Like the meta-narrative characteristics of The Tempest where the magic of stagecraft and all its spells have exhausted themselves, run aground, where even the fool is no longer capable of providing truth; the tricks of poetry, its revels, are coming to an end. Those truths that prove able to be captured turn out not to be powerful totems but imitations, merchandise: an owl t-shirt, or a carved wooden figurine. What is left for the poet to do is to wrestle with the coming night, an act of defiance, using as material for the work that which brings that work to an end. In the poem 'Sick Bed' this wrestling is rendered explicit, in the lines: 'I've got it's number, / and I will use it how I want to, on my terms'. Sweeney then, with a note of triumph, transmutes the bed across the final three lines into a chassis, a dog kennel, and an escapee on the moon.

'Mouse Sandwich', the final poem in Shadow of the Owl, brings the movement of the book full circle. One of the few poems in which the word dream appears, the narrator finds himself devouring a mouse sandwich by the riverbank whilst under the effects of morphine. The poet and the owl are drawn together and we are left with the notion that in the end the messenger, message, and the person called to hear it are one. In the individual case this is a closing off of the poetic creation, the voice it carries, and its creator. Communally however, it allow us recognise we are siblings in the face of mortality.

Where Kierkegaard writes of true poets taking an 'objective attitude to their own subjectivity', the comparative example he gives is of Socrates, who takes this objective attitude to the manner of his own death. This is why the lure of the autobiographical, works against poetry: it tends to re-subjectivise, collapsing that distance which the poet has worked so hard to create. Instead, what Shadow of the Owl does is to allow us to glimpse the re-enchanting force of Sweeney's poetry by taking as its object that event which cannot be enchanted, nor even lived. The book is then, a final clarifying of Sweeney's lifelong attentions, one which takes his funny, moving, and surprising poetic abilities to their zenith. The poet's life is not a life that shrinks from death but rather one that endures it and maintains itself in it. Rather than leaping over the grave, the poet leaps up and down, getting in death's face, using the tools of language despite knowing them to be ineffective, always deteriorating. This dance creates vibrations that will resound into the coming silence. By forging an objective relation to their own subjectivity, the poet can open a place for us to hear these vibrations. Perhaps such comprehension comes to us only in the grey, 'when a form of life is growing old'; something we learn when the owl takes flight at dusk.
Daniel Fraser is a writer from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His poetry and prose have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The London Magazine, and Aeon among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, ‘Lung Iron’, was published by ignitionpress in Autumn 2020.