A Picnic on Ice

by Matthew Sweeney
140 pages,
ISBN: 1550651633

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Affinities for the Strange and Subversive
by David O'Meara

Half a dozen years ago, Irish Poet, Matthew Sweeney, co-edited an anthology of poems called Emergency Kit; a kind of alt-poetry collection subtitled "Poems for Strange Times". It's an astounding and refreshing anthology, intended to bring together unconventional voices on the strangeness of our last century. In the introduction the editors revealed their interest in poems "which present wild, childlike tales whose distorting vision breaks through to the truth; which make risky journeys into the unconscious and back; which revel in a rowdy irreverence or an odd eroticismā" The intention was to show how wide poetry's imagination is, how subversive and surprising its observations could still be. Looking through A Picnic on Ice, which offers a selection from Sweeney's last ten collections, and servews as this North-American debut, one can see Sweeney's affinity for this kind of poetry. The above quote could easily serve as a description of his own work.
Foremost, Sweeney is a storyteller, the mischievous raconteur at the next barstool. He's the Irish uncle who taught you dirty words and snuck you a few sips of beer at family gatherings. His style hasn't changed much since his first collection. The poems are almost always narrative, often in the twinkle-eyed tone of a tall-tale. One sees this immediately when glancing over first lines: "There was the story of the power stationā" "When the goats ate the red carnationsā" "Listen, there is a money treeā" "The bagpipes on the wall began to skirlā" "He wanted to be buried on the moonā" "He woke up speaking Russian." Here's a favourite of mine, "Poker", in its entirety:
There were five of us playing that night,
Padge, Kieran, Neal and meų
and, stretched out in his coffin, Uncle Charlie.
We dealt him a hand each time
and took it in turns to bet for him,
waiving his losses, pooling his wins,
for what good were coins to him?
What could he win but his life?
Still, five of us played that night
and when we stopped it was daylight.
We left the cards with him
to remind him, forever, of that game
and Padge, Kieran, Neal, and me
went up the road to our beds
and slept until we buried him,
then played until we had to agree
the good hands had gone with Uncle Charlie.

It's a typical Sweeney poem: offbeat, told with little exposition in a functional language with the barest use of simile or metaphor. Inside his lines though, are several devices at work to make the poem effective: the surprise of the third line, the unobtrusive half end-rhymes ('e,' 'm,' the hard and soft 'i'), the use of proper names that authenticate the tale, not to mention real feeling. There are a number of poems like this, executed with subversive flair, born out of plain curiosity. When they work, they are marvellous, reverberating with the power of disguised meaning that myth and folklore contain. Sweeney's imagination can be as wide as Paul Durcan's, or as transformative as Miroslav Holub's. That strength lies in confounding your normal perception of the world, of frustrating your expectations, and, quite often, not letting you off the hook by explaining it to you at the end. It's difficult to guess what you'll encounter in a Sweeney poem: U-Boats, a man hanging from a lamppost, overdue invitations to the funeral of a monkey, a "shoelace and a penis lying in a field," a unicyclist on a tightrope, a butcher risen from the grave, or a zookeeper buried by the success of an elephant-laxative. He rejects the usual routes through experience, and opts for the unexpected camera angle.
And yet, I have mixed feelings about this approach. For all its surprise and playfulness, there's a bit too much of it. Almost always the poems depart from, or arrive at, some eccentric, topsy-turvy circumstance designed to get our attention. Whenever I've encountered a Sweeney poem in a magazine, its garden paths seemed invigorating alongside the habitual lyric road that much of contemporary poetry travels on. But reading a string of his poems in succession, their peculiar dazzle starts to feel formulaic, as if the only subjects that mattered were the exaggerated. You start to wish he'd sometimes resist the temptation to make us baffled or amused; that he'd surrender his narrative invention to the occasional outpouring. Too many breaths of fresh air will eventually leave anyone cold.
The truth is that sometimes this approach works and sometimes it just doesn't. The hermetic world of poems like "Monkey" or ""The Blue Taps" doesn't offer a fissure through which we can enter and participate, and so, there is no corresponding emotional context for the reader. And since Sweeney's strength is in the tale told, rather than in dazzling language or rhetoric, the success of his poems lie principally in whether the story resonates with the reader or not. In a poem like "The Volcano," for example, two people and a monkey flee an erupting volcano. It ends with the narrator looking back
āto see if lava was following
but all I saw was
a herd of donkeys, galloping,
and the sky filled with crows,
as if the mountain was emptying
of all its creatures, and all,
including us, would get away.
And as you slowed down
I put my hand on yours and squeezed,
thinking of the lava
entering our house
and swarming over our chairs,
turning them into sculptures
that one day we'd come back and see.

There is nothing particularly profound here, nor striking to the ear, nor understated or even amusing. Perhaps one can be entertained strictly by the anecdotal qualities of verse like this, but is there anything in it that compels you to read it more than once?
However, the best of his writing makes up for these deficiencies, and a good number of poems use their various puzzlements to tease out a core of meaning, which make reading this book worthwhile. Some are expertly constructed riddles ("Symmetry," "Bones," "New Rules," "The Box") that set the mind reeling; some play witness to skewed notions: "Out in the hills, the goat had been easy./ He'd creep up from behind, catch one horn/and enter her. She loved it, he knew,/so he thought he'd start pleasing women"("Initiation"). And there are a number of memorable poems, scattered throughout this book, of affectionate praise, where Sweeney drops the cleverness for a kind of off-kilter encouragement. Read "Last Supper," "The Boys In The Backroom," "Goodbye To The Sky," "Postcards," or "An End" to see how his imagination can playfully dilate our too-narrow perceptions. I'll certainly re-read "The Aviary" for its simple enthusiasm, which still betrays an unspoken longing hidden under the light step of its rhyme scheme. ō

Isn't it wild that Mary
abandoned the aviary
and went to Jamaica?
Can't you see her thereā
Look at Mary now,
look at how
brown she's become.
Listen to her laugh,
isn't it rough
on the poor girl.
Imagine, she flew
from Heathrow
to be there.
Let's send Mary
a baby canary
with clipped wings.
Let's remind Mary
of the aviary,
let's wish her well.

David O'Meara's first book of poems, Storm Still (1999, McGill-Queen's University Press) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Prize. He is currently at work on his next collection, due out from Brick in 2004. He lives in Ottawa.

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