Sweeno’s Beano

Nigel Wheale

  • The Book of Demons by Barry MacSweeney
    Bloodaxe, 109 pp, £7.95, September 1997, ISBN 1 85224 414 3
  • Poems 1980-94 by John Kinsella
    Bloodaxe, 352 pp, £9.95, April 1999, ISBN 1 85224 453 4
  • The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony by John Kinsella
    Arc, 108 pp, £7.95, January 1997, ISBN 1 900072 12 2
  • The Kangaroo Farm by Martin Harrison
    Paper Bark, 79 pp, £8.95, May 1998, ISBN 0 9586482 4 7

A tear caught in a mussel shell turns to pearl, the Ancients believed. Barry MacSweeney’s The Book of Demons begins among the living with ‘Pearl’, a 22-poem sequence evoking a childhood love between the poet-persona and his sweetheart, the daughter of a poverty-stricken smallholding family from the ‘rain-soaked’ ‘raw-bone’ laws – the high moors around Allen-heads in Northumberland. They are two poor kids growing up in the late Fifties. She wears a ‘Co-op coat’; the boy-poet’s heart is

           ransomed to Pearl, her
Woolworth butterfly blue plastic clip, still
                         made in Britain
then, her flighty bow.

The poems vividly create the children’s lives on the moors, lashed by gales blowing in from Ireland, and their pleasures taken among forests of borage, heifer clarts and becks where brown trout swim through watermint. But MacSweeney isn’t writing a bucolic memoir. Pearl has a cleft palate and, partly as a consequence, is illiterate. Stranded at the beginning of the alphabet, she can only vocalise ‘a-a-a-a-a-a’. The seam of her damaged mouth has cultured pearls and ore, veins of copper and gold more valuable, for the poet, than the metals laboriously won from the worked-out mines among which the two children live and play. Although speechless, Pearl is desperate to speak, read and write,

praying for St Elmo’s fire up here on the
                             Cushat Law
to surge her diction down the alphabet trail.

She sings ‘at the law’s rim’:

So low a nobody I am beneath the cowslip’s
shadow, next to the heifers’ hooves.
I have a roof over my head, but none
in my mouth. All my words are homeless.

She leaks truth ‘like a wound’, asking ‘what/does a government do?’ She serves as the poem’s counter-voice to economic and political misrule – the destruction of the local mining industry and the disappearance of old communities, replaced by ‘new units’ and their ‘almost literate noticeboards’.

There are other Pearls in this sequence, besides MacSweeney’s childhood love. Alliteration surfaces from time to time, and his sixth poem, ‘Mony Ryal Ray’ quotes a line from the Middle English Perle; the poem’s epigraph, ‘For urthely herte myght not suffyse’, is from the same source – MacSweeney has often used a pastiche-medieval register for particular effects, in ‘Wolf Tongue’ (1978), for example, he faked an excellent version of Thomas Chatterton’s (already fake) mode. Another poem in his ambit is probably Douglas Oliver’s The Infant and the Pearl (1985), a dream-allegorical confrontation in which malign powers are named with outlandish blazons such as ‘Zandra’, ‘Saatchi’ and ‘Margaret’. In a moving climax, Oliver’s dreamer lying ‘in my grey dressing gown’ discovers the pearl within himself, ‘a pellucid awareness of all that had passed’, and his dream-guide, Rosine, reveals her spirit counsel:

        The pearl is ourself in which lies
a rosy reflection of all whom we care for
enough, the Other rendered perfect in a paradise
of our self-love.

If MacSweeney’s poem takes its measure from The Infant and the Pearl, it’s nonetheless a more desperate work, cutting away to contemporary horrors with intent to shock. In ‘Cavalry at Calvary’, written to the Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane, the poet dreams of his Pearl but is also haunted by TV images and press reports dedicated to Irma Hadzimuratovic, one of the child victims of shelling in Sarajevo.

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