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.

MacSweeney’s first book, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, was published by Hutchinson New Authors in 1968 with an acid pink/red/green/purple laminated cover and a winning photograph of the poet, which immediately fused with one’s idea of Eric Burdon, the other Tyneside beauty of the moment. The poems were good, too: this was the New Lyricism, teasingly more complex than its lightness at first suggested, and showing a way with titles (which have got better still over the years). During the Seventies MacSweeney took his poems on the run, publishing a fugitive series of pamphlets from Blacksuede Boot Press, but his Odes from Trigram in 1978 were a new and estranging poetry, which called for very adroit reading. Ranter, a sequence from 1985, created another raiding, fleet-foot persona, ‘loping, running, retrieving’ through a landscape constructed out of North-East and Border landscapes and history. The persona of the Ranter was timely: he was a counter-historian, singing and reaving in tandem with academic projects like History Workshop, alert to the contribution of every ‘broadsheet printer, whisperer of sedition, wrecker of looms’. From time to time, as the Ranter treads the landscapes of Northumbrian history, the shale of imagery slides underfoot and he collapses into drink.

In this sense, Ranter was an ominous rehearsal for the latter part of The Book of Demons, an account of a descent into Hell, though the Pearl-girl of the opening sequence reappears fleetingly amid the extremities of the later poems. The blurb informs us that MacSweeney ‘wrote his first poem at the age of seven – 42 years ago – and has been an alcoholic since he was 16 ... The Book of Demons records his fierce fight against addiction.’ It is an extraordinary account of alcoholism, because, on the whole, the poet vanquishes the drinker – but the writing has clearly been produced at a high cost. The necessary healing distance is achieved by taking up a range of different perspectives – the various points of view of lovers and friends who are dragged into the poet-drinker’s trauma – and, crucially, by a mythology which fragments the wretched drinker’s self into multiple personae, some of which can be split off as destructive, while others are enlisted to restore the true ‘paradise of self-love’ sketched in Douglas Oliver’s The Infant and the Pearl.

One of MacSweeney’s most striking and painful poems in this mode is ‘Strap Down in Snowville’. The drunk/poet is locked in a toilet cubicle on Christmas Eve, ‘lollbonce on black plastic rim’, reviewing a maudlin parade of multiple selves, ‘Sweeney Swan Ludlunatic, revelling Leveller without/sober reveilles’ – a true ‘Sweeno’s Beano’. He debates whether he is for cure or oblivion and in the last stanza just about chooses a return to the normality which may have been his undoing in the first place. In ‘Daddy Wants to Murder Me’, the poet-persona revisits his seven-year-old self,

I sit in the garden reading Homer, shy lad
under a folding one-man tent and daddy
                  wants to murder me.

The daemonic insecurity of the writing has its origins in this malevolent father, ‘Mr Not Sit Him On Your Knee’, who metamorphoses into an arch-persecutor, the ‘Demon with the Mouth of Rustling Knives’. An obvious, troubling parallel is drawn:

Normally, in recent literary history, daddy, it
     is women
who write about their daddies, daddy. But
     now it’s me ...
Daddy, when the word failure fled into my
     dictionary
one page after facetious, I thought of you.

Though Anne Sexton is more often invoked, The Book of Demons touches on the kinds of personal misery and breakdown that are also to be found in Sylvia Plath. The paranoid fantasies of the addict in forced recovery transform the hospital staff into ‘Stasi’ persecutors – ‘Mental rental idiots in hatred/uniform’, who thrust their hands down his throat and check his progress on ‘Himmler clipboards’. This diseased perception shades into other fantasies, rather less delusional, as fellow patients become internees brutalised by state repression:

     Tony, dying from self-imposed malnutrition
and not from any kind of certifiable brain disease,
and who was from a village sacked by the
                         shock troops
of this present Government, and not even on a proper
glucose drip

The ‘present Government’ was Margaret Thatcher’s and The Book of Demons includes vengeful passages about her policies:

they crucified the miners
with Pharisees and cavalry
dressed up as friendly coppergrams
it wasn’t Dixon of Dock Green Tom
it was the Duke of Cumberland and Lord Londonderry
rolled into one

Personal suffering and historical catastrophe are woven tightly together in the middle of a harrowing sequence when MacSweeney’s ideal-other returns as ‘Pearl against the Barbed Wire’. Now the high laws above the tumblestones have been opened up for anyone to walk provided they follow trail-blazed routes ‘pierced by yellow arrow marks’; ramblers are corralled on the moors by razor-wire perimeters which arrive ‘in unrolled bales like silver hay’, and this invasion of the children’s ideal landscape throws the poem into crisis. Pearl becomes haunted by visions of ‘barbs and staples and hooks and eyes’, the gleaming boots of genocidal murderers and the ‘bushels of knees/and other thinly-appointed limbs’ of their victims. Her dark obsession contaminates ‘Bar’, now a derelict poet, who pleads to be hauled ‘from the terrible terror of the wristblood wire’. There is absolutely no analogy to be made here: only a very sad case is reminded of Auschwitz-Birkenau by a country park. At this point The Book of Demons ‘overdraws its rights to our sympathy’, as Seamus Heaney said in The Government of the Tongue of Plath’s ‘Daddy’, a poem which rampaged ‘so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows’. Yet the risks that MacSweeney takes with a reader’s goodwill seem to be justified by the delinquent beauty and wounded humour which his writing also offers.

MacSweeney’s poetry from the last twenty years would be worth putting together in an accessible collection, as Bloodaxe has done for John Kinsella. Poems 1980-94 reprints his first eight books and some early poems. The collection is evidence of an energetic, wide-ranging spirit intent on extending several strands of Australian poetry. According to Kinsella, the meaning of the urban Australian’s nostalgia for ‘the centre (read: the bush)’ is ‘probably the prime debate of mid-Nineties Australian poetics, certainly among male poets’. Born in 1963, John Kinsella grew up in the Perth suburbs but he also worked on wheatbelt farms and sheep stations in the Avon Valley area, sixty miles west of the city. His poetry therefore gives a remarkable account of the landscapes, technology and lives led on the agricultural prairies in this ‘region of extractions’ where water springs from an Underworld that ‘has its/limitations and will bleed to death eventually’. This develops an aspect of Australian poetry that has always been careful of locality: Randolph Stow’s early work, for example, or Robert Adamson’s Hawkesbury River poems, or, from an earlier generation, Judith Wright’s concern for landscape. The title-poem of Kinsella’s most recent book, The HuntOther Poems (1998), is dedicated to Les Murray, who reaches out to an international readership from Bunyah, New South Wales.

Kinsella’s West Australian ‘Wheatbelt Gothic’ is, however, only one facet of his work, which is informed by a wide knowledge of contemporary writing and debate. He is the founder-editor of the journal, Salt, and of the Folio press. His anthology A Salt Reader (1995) gives space to poets as diverse as Peter Porter, Lyn Hejinian and Yannis Ritsos. In 1997 he published a novel, Genre; his play, Crop Circles, will by performed this month by the Marlowe Society in Cam bridge. There are 12 books of poetry to date.

Kinsella established a reputation with his first collection, Night Parrots (1989), in which mysterious, visionary experiences somewhere in Australia recall themes from the poets, novelists and painters of earlier decades, including Patrick White (Riders in the Chariot) and Sidney Nolan (the Ned Kelly series). The title-poem conjures with the idea of a bird species that may or may not exist – ‘If at all, then fringe dwellers/of the centre’, like poetry, an epiphenomenon of life in the bush. Other poems describe ‘fire-tumbles’, essences of flame that burn without fuel, ‘things wild/whose wanderings/are without motive’. Kinsella’s second collection, Eschatologies (1991), began to level with his abiding subject as the unlocated visions of Night Parrots took up residence in marginal farmlands. Here Kinsella details a saline world of struggling farmscapes – in the description, for example, of water catchment zones where wind is ‘darning patches/on the wider waters’. He understands the technology of agrarian labour and its significance for farmers and the land on which they depend: the lip of a quarry reservoir exhibits ‘the risk of overextension/threatening the pristine catchment’.

Kinsella also pursues an experimental line, partly deriving from the work of John Tranter, and more recently influenced by American ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ poets. Syzygy (1993), included in this selection, is a fragmentary, agitated sequence, part of the project to evade ‘voice’ in poetry and resist the reader’s attempts to construct a preempting cohesion. This has an air of willed experimentalism and is not something that Kinsella does as well as the American writers whose work he admires. It may, however, be necessary to the ambition of his poetry, and his wresting of poetic meanings in Syzygy and later work has contributed to the achievement of The Silo (1997).

Subtitled ‘A Pastoral Symphony’, this book is Kinsella’s most impressive to date, sustaining a remorseless focus on the lives of farmers, families and labourers in the western wheatbelt through an impressive variety of voices and forms. A rabbit, blinded by myxomatosis, is spared by a wedge-tailed eagle, and ‘moves slowly/into the field, reading the braille/of pasture’; the poet whispers ‘prayers of deflection’ as he drives through flights of parrots raiding grain trucks after harvest. As Rod Mengham observes in his acute Introduction, the poems are full of such intensely realised details, yet the sequence as a whole has the effect of abstracting the reader from the lives and processes described and creates a complex critical perspective, at once pastoral and anti-pastoral.

Martin Harrison’S The Kangaroo Farm includes a poem in which he tentatively describes his own ‘Australia’ as

                a well-off, livable Argentina
with its shards of myth set up in export mode
to old oceanic powers and new high-rise neighbours,
a dry fringe whose dimensions upset the television,
whose multitudinous doubt’s as learned as
                         traditional art,
and where we can’t afford 68ers, or the
                         classicist’s smirk.

Harrison re-creates ‘livable’ locales in his poems, utterly convincing places where ordinary happiness might reside. He care-takes for friends in a house

easy to undervalue, it’s a new Colonial,
built from near-perfect, unreturning richness.
Half-Bush, half-City, it floats between
                    passion and loss.

But the last two stanzas of this fine poem change into a delicate recollecting of the persona’s ‘grief-sense, beneath things’ of his mother’s death, the kind of loss that has to be renegotiated each time it is represented. The longest, most sustained poem in The Kangaroo Farm is ‘Moon Gazing in Sorrento Dusk’, a moving elegy for Roland Robinson, one of the first ‘white’ poets to collect and incorporate Aboriginal legends and narratives into his poetry.

You can’t help but envy poets writing in Australia for all that extraordinary material flying, crawling or hopping around. Harrison is particularly good about leeches:

ideal matter, they’re basic in design-
projects for multiples, for being sure,

for randomness. They’re very Nineties.

But he also does wild bees, paperbarks, crows, parrots (naturally), an elegy to the Tasmanian Tiger (which compares interestingly with John Kinsella’s ‘The Hunt’), a wonderful aria to the forest kingfisher that

unleashed its way of being-now, its ghostlike richness,
its stillness flying behind all language that’s
                           trained or pure

and, irresistibly, ‘The Platypus’:

Fur, blood, bones, it lives out a warm theorem:
how cells communicate with mode and shape.
It’s pure exuberance of style. No post-modern,
it benefits from natural history.

This is fluent writing which is not pre-cast in any obvious ways and rarely brought up against its own mannerisms – calm, intelligent, long-lined verse letters that engagingly bring us to a world where the ‘sea-dusks are sea-dusks flowing far inland’.