Review: A Picnic on Ice

08Jul10

Originally published in The Danforth Review, 2004.

A butcher pulls himself from the grave every night, habitually serving the village he knows. A hanged man describes the moments after the event, not the moments leading up to it. A man separated from his wife becomes a crow and sits on a nearby tree watching her.

The poems of Ireland’s Matthew Sweeney are not all morbid, but they are all highly original, and Signal Editions introduces a selection representing twenty-years and ten books in A Picnic on Ice.  Sweeney is a poet who is clearly aware that he can’t help but be in his poems at least incidentally, but he chooses to avoid speaking directly about himself in favour of far more liberated and creative methods. Not only does it allow him to neatly and consistently sidestep cliché, he’s become a master of the fictional poem — serious enough to be meaningful, irreverent enough to be unpretentious, and still conveying a lot about character in a short space.  “Gold,” memorably describes the crabs and squids that sit inside skulls, near bars of gold at the bottom of the sea. They couldn’t possibly understand or care about the plans that “pulsed” in those heads. “The Women,” is a vivid description of a party that could have involved Sweeney, though if it did he transplants it in time, making a reference to music on “the wireless.” It’s as though Sweeney is conscious of how little time we have (he mentions death often enough) and purposely extends his reach, scattering his poems beyond his life.

It’s a refreshing change to be kept guessing as to how much of the author is in each poem. But Sweeney certainly appears, and it’s a pleasant surprise. The crow poem described above is entitled “Sweeney,” and in another poem, “The House,” rooms and happenings are described like something out of a fable, until he concludes with the final lines “but it did have a piano upstairs. / And I did grow up there.” A poem like “A Daydream Ahead” is a surprisingly touching look at loss, and “The Aunt I Never Met” is an excellent short portrait of a personality (“she played tennis / with priests, and beat them, / and drank Bloody Marys from a bottle”) that strikes the reader as very real.

The only unsatisfying moments in the book were a result of the tendency for poems to carry on a few lines beyond the climax. Sweeney has an interesting poem in “Reading,” where the “I” narrator explains that it was out of a feeling of pointlessness in life that he took out a book and began reading while driving on the M1.  He explains “I had no one to hurry home to,” but the unnecessary final line “It didn’t seem a wrong thing at all!” feels tacked on. But it’s a minor complaint. This is literally 147 pages of solid poetry, with no section breaks or headings swallowing whole pages. More importantly, it’s a highly recommended selection of original and rewarding poems.



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