SWEENY: Ah! Now the gallows trap has opened that drops the strongest to the ground!
LYNCHSEACHAN: Sweeney, now you are in my hands, I can heal these father’s wounds: your family has fed no grave, all your people are alive.
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray
My friend the poet, Matthew Sweeney, is certain he is dying. This is a conviction he has held without remission, since 1952 when he first saw the light, in its grey Irish version, in Ballyliffin, in northernmost Donegal. He knew even then, though he was some years from the articulation of this intelligence, that something was very, very wrong. What was it the pink infant Sweeney sensed, aswaddle in his bassinet, warmed by the gleeful cooing of his parents, a peacetime citizen of a green and peaceful place, that made him conscious of impending doom? Nothing in his more or less idyllic childhood, his education at the Malin National School, his successful matriculation from the Franciscans at Gormanstown, his escape from university – first from Dublin, then from North London Polytechnic, and finally from Freiburg (where he befriended, for reasons soon to be illumined, a corps of medical students) – or any of the several other blessings this life bestows, could disabuse him of the sense, continuously a part of his psychology, that there was a deadly moment in every minute; an end with his name on it ever at hand.
Even after his successful wooing of the most beautiful woman in the neighbouring parish, the former Rosemary Barber of Buncrana, praised in local song and story for the fierceness of her eyes, the depth of her intellection, the lithe perfections of her form, and the sensibilities of her character – even after such a triumph, the niggling gloom that attended his conviction, far from going hush, grew louder still. For now he had not only a life to lose but a life made precious by the blissful consortium of married life. (A consortium on which his forthcoming collection The Bridal Suite will no doubt shed inspired light.) In like manner, the birth of his daughter Nico, his hearts needle if ever was, followed by the birth of his son Malvin, who soon enough would call him Daddy, made him immediately happier and accordingly sadder.
‘If you love your life in this world,’ Matthew remembered Paul opining, ‘you will lose it.’ He loved his life. What sane man wouldn’t. Loss, he figured, stalked him with its scythe.
He’d written poems. He liked the sound of words of his own making in his own mouth. He’d met with early and deserved critical success. The Sweeneys had long since settled in London, the better to pursue his literary career. The better, likewise, for a man whose fear of driving was, by his own admission, consummate – a dread driven by visions of his body and the bodies of his children entangled with metal to their disadvantage. London, with its Underground, buses and reliable taxis, unlike the hinterlands of Donegal, gave Matthew the mobility he needed without the morbidity risked by driving a car. What’s more, the Kingdom’s capital is one of the great ambulatories of the world, providing access, at every turn, to the retail purveyors of essential and elective goods.
Thus, from the stoop of his ample flat in Dombey Street, Matthew Sweeney need only travel eastwards less than two hundred metres, whereupon he finds himself in Lamb’s Conduit Street – a walking mall of small shops and markets. Within a stone’s throw of his premises is a pharmacist (to whom Mr Sweeney addresses frequent queries), a French bakery for croissants, a florist (from whom Mr Sweeney purchased the wee cacti which became the title poem of his most recent and acclaimed collection), his local public house, the Lamb (for the usual wetgoods), a dry cleaner’s, two coffee shops, a grocery and a greengrocer (with whom Mr Sweeney has long debated the use and abuses of diverse lettuces, aubergines and chili peppers), two victuallers (one Irish, one Prussian), a herbalist (on whose custom I am unqualified to comment), and the Bloomsbury office of A. France Undertakers – one of London’s eldest and most respected carriage trade mortuaries, passing by whose black and gilded storefront, Mr Sweeney can be observed to quicken his pace and heard to whistle the fragments of a Tom Waits tune. Only the loss, in 1991, of Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop, which housed the city’s most comprehensive selection of contemporary poetry, along with Bernard Stone himself, diminished the hospitable cityscape outside the Sweeneys’ door.
One block due north of which, it is worthy of notice, stands the ancient and imposing structure of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. No one, of the hundreds of poets and writers who have made their pilgrimage to Matthew’s home, regards this proximity of this and several other hospitals as happenstance. But whether the availability of medical care, or the endless parade of distressed humanity within eyeshot of his fourth-floor living-room, adds to or subtracts from Matthew’s angst, is anyone’s guess. Maybe Sweeney himself doesn’t know. But his frequent travels on foot, west into Queen Square, to meet with his man at Faber and Faber, the publisher of Matthew’s poems for children (whose appeal, according to reviewers, proceeds from their dark homage to monsters and menace and the inherent dangers of maturation) take him, inevitably, by the hospital’s massive edifice.
The Sweeney home in Bloomsbury (a place-name from which a wordsmith of Matthew’s calibre can easily extract the vital and the morbid etymological strains) sits at an epicentre of the medical forces – to wit: the Hospital for Sick Children, the Royal College of Surgeons, the London University Hospital, the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases (where Matthew once left samples of urine and sputum to be screened for the Ebola virus) which, along with other regiments of the medical militia, all within walking distance, speak to the battle being endlessly waged between man (in the gender-inclusive sense) and the microbial forces of nature by which he (see above) is infested, infected, afflicted, endangered, diseased and ultimately – and this is Matthew’s point – put to death.
Perhaps a little history here. It was in Bewley’s Museum over Grafton Street that I first met Matthew Sweeney. It was Dublin and springtime of 1989. The Irish launch of his fourth collection, Blue Shoes, occurred the day before a reading I was giving in the upper room of the famous coffee emporium. He prevailed on his editor, now our editor, to stay in Dublin an extra day so the two of them might come to my reading. One of our Dublin friends in common, Philip Casey, the poet and novelist, had given me Matthew’s poems and Matthew some of mine. There followed a genial correspondence on themes of admiration and shared acquaintance that prefaced our meeting face to face. We repaired to Grogan’s Bar according to the local custom. The audience was too brief, the bar-room too noisy, I was jet-lagged and Matthew not fully recovered from the night before. Happily, it was the first of many meetings since, in England, Ireland and Michigan, where each of us has enjoyed the comforts of the other’s home and the company of the other’s friends.
Among the society of writers and foodies he keeps in London, Matthew is seen as a charming neurotic of the hypochondriacal variety. There are accounts of his inflation of the common cold to pneumonia or tuberculosis. His headaches are all brain tumours, his fevers meningitis, his hangovers all peptic ulcers or diverticulitis. Any deviation from the schedule of his toilet is a bowel obstruction or colon cancer. He has been tested for every known irregularity except pregnancy, though he takes, on a seasonal basis, medication for PMT, from which, no one doubts, he suffers. He is a consumer of medical opinion and keeps a list of specialists and their beeper numbers on his person. A cardiologist, an acupuncturist, an immunologist, an oral surgeon, an oncologist, a proctologist and a behavioural psychologist join several psychic and holistic healers of regional and para-religious persuasions to make up Matthew’s medical retinue. The same numbers are programmed to speed-dial from his home phone. And where most of his co-religionists wear a medallion that reads: In case of Emergency Call a Priest, Sweeney’s reads Call an Ambulance. Call a Doctor. Please Observe Universal Precautions.
He has consulted for or imagined having every known malady of the human species from Abasic trembling to Zymotic infection and seems strangely uplifted by the transmigration of ailments between genera and sub-groups heretofore unknown. Swine Flu, Deer-Tick Disease, Feline Leukaemia, Brown Bat Rabies and, of course, Parrot Fever must be ruled out at his quarterly physical examinations.
He is, and will suffer no quarrel on this account, the only known survivor of Mad Cow Disease, caught, he insists, from the meagre-most portion of tenderloin that accompanied kippers and poached eggs at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, where he brunched, by appointment, with the restaurant reviewer for the Observer. Their discussion of mushrooms in Southern French cuisine apparently filled Matthew with such overwhelming images of toxicity that the paramedics had to be called.
The standing joke is that Matthew possesses an open offer of a sizeable advance from a prominent publisher for an intimate treatise on hypochondria which, alas, he has never felt well enough to do. But while others nod and wink and roll their eyes, I have come to wonder if he isn’t a harbinger, a visionary, a prophet, a voice crying out in the urban desert: ‘the End is Near, it’s Later than You Think.’
It was not only the commuter services or the literary milieu or the world-class health care that brought Sweeney to London. It was the food. Unimaginative about the preparation of food, the British have brought the best from the far reaches of the former Empire to London. There is no regional or national or ethnic cuisine on the face of the planet that does not have an office in London. And Matthew has made it his mission to sample and to savour and to study each. He is a student of the palate and the plate, a sage of the taste buds, tongue and tablefare. In this incarnation he has found the best Thai eatery (Tui in South Kensington, near the offices of Secker and Warburg), the best Afghan (Caravan Serai in Paddington St), the best Indian (the Red Fort in Soho), the finest dim-sum (Harbour City in Chinatown), the ultimate noodle-bar (Wagamama in Streatham Street near the British Museum), the most reliable vegetarian curry (Mandeer in an alleyway behind Tottenham Court Road Station). The geography of taste is as boundless for a man as the sky is borderless to flighted birds. And Sweeney often seems – rapt in sampling some hitherto unknown morsel – almost winged with delight, a rare bird of an urban paradise.
But where the goldfinch craves thistle, and the pelican fish, and the humming-bird nectar, and the peregrine meat, the free-range of Matthew’s hankerings is suited to the city’s cosmopolitan menu and he plots his daily flights according to a constellation of favourites that shine brightly in his firmament of food. On these sorties he is often accompanied by willing accomplices from the arts of verse or gourmandery for whom a meal shared with Matthew Sweeney is a tuition they are more than happy to pay. I should also say he is a superior cook who takes seriously every aspect of the selection, the preparation, the presentation and the savouring of whatever dish is devised in his kitchen.
All of which I mention because this apprehension and appreciation of food – sensory and spiritual and gastro-intestinal – seems coincidental with what others call his hypochondria and what I have come to consider his rare antennae for the flavours of mortality, a keen aptitude for the taste of survival.
What I mean to say is that over sashimi at Ikkyu (Tottenham Court Road near the Goodge Street Station) the talk will inevitably turn to the number of Japanese killed every year by the ingestion of a toxic organ in an otherwise harmless (when properly skinned and eviscerated) puffer fish called fugu. Did the menu predestine the conversation? Once, preparing an Umbrian dish of sausage and lentils, meant to replicate a speciality of the Trattoria Dal Francese, in Norcia, he asked what I knew about urinary tract infections, male sexual dysfunctions, inflammations of the colon and diverticuli, the prognostic implications of chronic flatus. Was it the sausage and lentils I wondered? Was there a connection between foodstuffs and the fear of doom in Matthew’s complex psychopathology? Why, for example, while precisely dicing the chives for inclusion in a garnish for rainbow trout, would the light-hearted chit-chat lurch from the morning’s catch (from a trout pond in northern Michigan) to the manifold dangers of microsurgery? ‘One infinitesimal slip of the wrist,’ he said, ‘and you can’t walk, or can’t talk, or you’ll drool for the rest of your miserable life.’ And once, over what I believe to be the hemisphere’s finest presentation of lobster at Manuel DiLucia’s in Corbally, near my cottage in Clare, Matthew began to question me on deaths by misadventure, especially falling from extreme heights. In particular he wanted to know if any forensic evidence could be cited in support of his hope that such deaths occurred somewhere between the top and bottom of the fall rather than as a result of the ultimate impact of the fall itself.
I have long thought it my professional duty, when questioned by someone of Matthew’s sensibilities, either to give the true answer when it is known to me, or to suggest a source in the topical literature where such an answer might be found, or, failing either of these, to make something up. I mentioned to Matthew a highly regarded theory, first proffered by a student of C.G. Jung’s, that the presence of an overwhelming existential threat to the organism produces glandular secretions and other biochemical adaptations that occlude the cerebral synapse through which the business of nerve cells is, in the normal way, conducted. This psycho-biological response amounts to a coma from which, depending on the distance of the fall, the victim either awakens with broken but reparable bones in the nearest emergency ward or does not awaken at all. In either event, it could be fairly stated, your man would never know what hit him or, in this case, what he hit.
Matthew, transfixed by my testimony, allowed himself a taste of the lobster, a bit of brown bread and a sup of Puligny-Montrachet. Rosemary assisted the children with the cracking of shells and the choice of utensils. I could see in her eyes the blue patience of the saintly who live with writers of Matthew’s stripe. I thought we might ease our way towards orthodontics or adolescence or the shape of the universe or any of several more inclusive topics. But aflicker in Matthew’s eyes I could see uncertainty, insatiety, the lingering remnant of the reasonable doubt that has set free many a guilty man, and saved a few of the blameless, too.
Was it because Manuel DiLucia’s was perched on a cliff overlooking Kilkee and the rugged coastline south-west to Loop Head? (Our host was a descendant of one of the few survivors of the Spanish Armada run aground off the West Clare coast in a storm centuries ago. Most of those who crawled ashore, it is reported, were slaughtered by the native Irish.) Were these treacherous precipices reminiscent, I wondered, of Matthew’s boyhood near Malin Head, the northernmost outpost of Ireland, where the land rises half a mile above the sea? I was reminded of my countryman, Edgar Allan Poe: the ‘imp of the perverse’ was the name he gave to that voice in all of us which, on the brink of such a deadly height, says: ‘Jump!’ Was it Poe who held that in everything’s creation is the kernel of its own destruction?
I thought maybe some empirical evidence, albeit gathered from my own narrow studies, might satisfy his current hunger. I told him of a man I once embalmed, a worker in a scrap metal and salvage yard, on whom a car had fallen, fatally. No doubt someone’s plummet from a great height would have been more illustrative but by ordinance the tallest building in Milford is three storeys, so that death by nosedive is rare around here. So this was no Icarus, no man fallen from the sky. Rather this was a man on whom the sky had fallen, in the form of a ‘67 Mustang convertible, itself the victim of a head-on collision. Both the Mustang and the huge magnetic disc that held it dropped on the poor fellow when the giant crane from which they hung gave way on account of a thing called ‘metal fatigue’. The victim of the tragedy was rummaging for hub-caps in a heap below.
Few comforts can be wrung from such events. No compensation from the insurance carrier, no lofty talk in praise of the dead, nor fellow feeling for those left behind can right the wrongness of such happenings. It was, in the words of my eldest son who brought the body back from the county morgue, ‘a bad thing’.
Something in the look on Matthew’s face told me that further detail on the dead man’s circumstances, or family, was uncalled for, so completely had Matthew already identified with this hapless client, killed one weekday by the falling sky.
But what I thought I ought to tell my friend was this: that for all the damage done, and it was considerable – we’re talking several tons here from maybe a hundred feet – the look on your man’s face was serenity itself, a peace that proclaimed nothing so loudly as his ignorance of or concurrence with the Unknown Forces that dropped this car on him. There was, among the wounds and contusions and fractures and traumas, an aspect of the man’s visage that looked like he wanted to tell us: ‘Have a nice day!’ And though I thought it might be a source of encouragement to his mother and his significant other, they pretty much had their mind set on a closed casket.
Brimming with sympathy for his fellow traveller in this Vale of Tears, Sweeney looked westwards through the window, where the sun was declining into the North Atlantic on the brink of which his wife and children – she had tactfully removed them for ‘some fresh air’ – stood silhouetted by the evening light. Gulls hovered in the updraft at the cliff’s edge, overhead them. The lights of small boats bound for the bay mingled with the light of early stars.
I ordered himself a snifter of brandy.
If life is like a box of chocolates, no less should be said for a lobster dinner. There are lessons to be learned from it. Among the ones I’ve learned are these: some of us taste and some of us savour. For some it’s a chore, for others a treat. Some eat and run and some eat and wonder. Some food is hunted, some gathered. Some is slaughtered, some we reap. Some of it’s living, some of it’s dead. All of our hungers are not the same.
After years of dining with Matthew Sweeney, after years of trading poems, stories, recipes and friends, I have come to believe that what he sensed as a baby, what he knew as a boyo, what he knows as a man is that we die. On this account he is absolutely right. If his wariness seems acute, intense, at times neurotic, it could just as easily be called a gift.
Perhaps he sees the ghost in the mirror. Or feels the chill in every touch. Perhaps he hears the imp more clearly. Or sniffs the rotting with the sweet.
Maybe it’s only his taste buds are better – for the seed in his being of his ceasing to be.