Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Black Moon

Matthew Sweeney's Black Moon:

"The Mission": A poem about a contract killer right before the kill.

"The Doors": A man enters a high-security building. (This one was in the Southern Review, June 2006, but is not available on-line.) Here's the last few lines:

All the eyes in the portraits
were turned my way.
I looked back at the door

heard the lock click, then beyond
another lock, then another.

The obvious response is "And then?" But I like it left hanging like this, with nothing to hold onto but the careful description of a scene. "No Sugar," which follows, works the same way: "And then?" But it's the scene that Sweeney wants to set up, not the resolution; in "No Sugar," a man being offered tea in a very peculiar setting.

"Sweatmark": a man sees a map of Ireland on his T-shirt. If "The Doors" provided a form of closure that disrupted the "And then?" by closing the doors, and "No Sugar" provided poetic closure with the reference to "no sugar" with which it concludes, then "The Sweatmark" does it by having the mark get washed out, never to return.

"The Snowy Owl": a snowy owl distracts a firing squad from the effects of their work. You can read the poem here, with a recording of MS reading it (and translations into Dutch, German, Serbian, and Slovakian; isn't lyrikline great?). This one makes clear how central the vividness of his imagery is to Sweeney's poems.

That's only up to page 9 of Black Moon (with a couple poems uncommented). On page 10 is a poem called "Excavation"; my first note is "simply one stunner after another!" The poem seems to me exemplary, without being academic or pedantic or melodramatic:


Somewhere in these woods a crashed plane
is buried in undergrowth, the wings
broken off, black crosses still visible
to anyone who'd hack down to see them,
and if this person were then to excavate
the crushed cockpit, liberate the broken
skeleton, prop it up against a pine tree,
a low humming would be heard above
the flies and bees, a humming that took on
German, that danced about on the wind
while the tail, with its black crosses,
was dug out of roots, grass, fallen branches
as gunfire once again filled these hills
after sixty years, and shells and tracer
flew overhead, but no tree would be hit,
nor would fires whoosh through leaves
to the delight of the fool in the hill castle
out with his grappa on the rooftop,
Marlene blaring through the speakers
singing to the crashed pilot in the woods.

"Sleep": a boy soldier asleep by a tank at the edge of a conflict. The scene could be anywhere, yet is rendered with the greatest detail, making it both a generalized scene and a specific experience at the same time.

"Signature": a man is being forced to sign a confession. Sweeney imagines scenes of arbitrary violence, again and again, with the greatest precision.

"Captured": a woman is captured and taken off for ... interrogation? torture? "And then?" the poems are not really narratives after all, but fragments of narratives, vividly imagined moments in which the individual's experience of arbitrary power is depicted. In "Captured," it is the moment of capture itself that is of interest. Sweeney does interrogation elsewhere (in "Signature", for example). By page 17, the book has become a gallery of scenes that cover the range of contemporary possibilities of violence and arbitrary abuse of power (from the perspectives of the powerful and the powerless both).

"Underground": a man lives "in a hole in the ground, / down a ladder, in the bottom room." Like "The Doors," in a way: all crisp and clear, but mysterious. A scene described in such a way that the scene justifies itself, without needing any interpretation within the poem itself, and thus becomes a surface to be interpreted. The depth is in the images themselves, as it were.

I have been skipping some of the poems. The ones that seem less effective seem to be most detached from historical or contemporary specificities, even though the most effective ones are as effective as they are because of their own detachment.

"String" seems like a poetics:


If ever the thought strikes you
to head off for the Arctic,
be sure to take with you
a large roll of string,
for the Inuits up there
can make string tell stories –
anyone who’s a poet
is also a string artist
and talks to the kids as well.
So you’d better practice
before you get there.
Read up on your history, too –
that fellow, Lord Franklin,
who disappeared; whose wife
liked to swing in a hammock
and who offered all kinds
of rewards for anyone
who could bring the body
back from the ice. If he’d
taken a big enough roll
of string, and trailed it
behind him all the cold way,
she could have wrapped up
and found him herself.
And even today an Inuit
string-artist tells that story
to hordes of visitors
without uttering a word.

Sweeney's idea of what poetry is: talking to kids, but without uttering a word. Clarity, but a laconic approach.

"Being Met": there are two people waiting to pick up "Cecil" at an airport, each of them "trying to persuade him / that they were the embassy driver." The scene is left unresolved, but the "And then?" does not rear its head. The poem is grounded in the literal scene while pointing towards the figurative without being reduced to it. In that sense, again exemplary.

On page 31, everything changes. "Borders": a poem about various borders Sweeney has crossed, built anaphorically around the opening line's "I have seen the Ukraine, across a river." Of course, I especially liked "I have stood at the customs in Basel / with a scribbled sign for Dublin." Here, the tone is suddenly quite different (more personal?), with less mystery, but in its own, different way perfect.

When I read the book, I wondered whether "Borders" would remain singular, but it turns out to be a hinge—gone the detached exploration of contemporary power through vividly presented scenes of greater or lesser specifity; in its place, as it were, the poet? Certainly things get more "personal" after this. Or perhaps I should say that the poems begin to develop a clearer speaking persona beyond the individual poem.


Rob said...

Yes, I liked Matthew Sweeney's book too. I felt there were a few weaker poems that might count against it when the TS Eliot Prize judges make their selection. But like you, I thought the strong ones really hit the mark.

I haven't read Sarah Maguire's book, but I liked the poem of hers (included in The Pomegranates...) that was shortlisted for the Forward Prize's Best Single Poem, last year I think - was it called "Passages"? Something like that.

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the comment, Rob. I was planning to write a second post about later poems in the book, but I decided not to after all. What I noticed was not a drop-off in quality (I did not think the poems were weaker), but a change in intensity. In fact, it crosses my mind that I at first thought Sweeney should have put the book the other way around, so that the most intense poems were at the end. Their intensity would then not have made the less intense poems seem weak.