Books: The sunday poem

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 9 Matthew Sweeney
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A Donegal Catholic from the Northern Irish border, resident in London, Sweeney studied in Germany and is profoundly influenced by the deceptively simple "fable" element of East European writing. And by cinema, as noir as possible. His poems are existential Kafkaesque parables, tragi- comic, compassionate, surreal, dryly wistful, irrepressibly curious, lonely as Giacometti sculptures, full of sinister images (graveyards, priests, cacti, displaced or mutilated animals). They work simultaneously on a symbolic and realistic level: it is up to you how you take them. Sweeney rarely uses metaphor, for each poem is a metaphor itself. Formally, they are often block poems with scrupulous vowel-harmonies and rhythm tying the lines together. This is from his sixth collection.

The Hat

A green hat is blowing through Harvard Square

and no one is trying to catch it.

Whoever has lost it has given up -

perhaps, because his wife was cheating,

he took it off and threw it like a frisbee,

trying to decapitate a statue

of a woman in her middle years

who doesn't look anything like his wife.

This wind wouldn't lift the hat alone,

and any man would be glad to keep it.

I can imagine - as it tumbles along,

gusting past cars, people, lamp-posts -

it sitting above a dark green suit.

The face between them would be bearded

and not unhealthy, yet. The eyes

would be green, too - an all green man

thinking of his wife in another bed,

these thoughts all through the green hat,

like garlic in the pores, and no one,

no one pouncing on the hat to put it on.

A poem about loneliness and anxiety, straightforward and fanciful on the surface, but - like one of those European films about a lost object - hanging an increasingly sharp question-mark over the observer's involvement. At one level, this is description plus playful fantasy; at another, all anguished suspicion. The fact that it is both makes a real point about sympathy and shared experience. What happens to one man may be happening to another. If the hat fits (the poem says), wear it. Compassion, even imaginary, is the only antidote to uncertainty and isolation. We all wear hats, choose roles: we lose them, observe them in action, throw them away. We are all lonely, vulnerable, mortal. Sweeney gets to this message unpretentiously in careful plain language, revealing, not explaining. He leaves you to your own conclusions.

The vehicle of compassion is that "hat". All the lonely lostness is projected on to it: its sound flickers through the first six lines ("catch / perhaps / decapitate / statue") as it does through the square, and returns at the end in the repeated "hat". In this carefully patterned sound-world ("thoughts / pores"), the longer sequences tell a story of anxiety: not just "cheating", "keep", "people", but the O of "blowing / alone" mutating (in a moan) through "along" and "man" to "no one / no one". The anxiety is summed up in the sequence "unhealthy: not yet bearded in bed". The vowel-combination ah-ee-oo ("Harvard / cars / dark green suit / garlic"; "between / green, too / these ... through") begun early on but overshadowed by "hat/catch", responds to the "ee" of "frisbee" (see "keep it / cheating"), echoing the first word, "green". This "ee" is not an accented monosyllable like "hat". It doesn't come singly; it grows on the poem in relationship with other sounds: as jealousy, whose colour is green, grows on the mind in a mix of worries.

The "I" sound, picking up "i" in "wife" (followed up by "eyes" and "wife" again) prompts an unspoken caption: "I HAVE MY EYES ON MY WIFE". This poet is not the cool observer he seems (and his "I", or "eye", has already been at work behind "perhaps", imagining that straight-from-Goldfinger decapitation): he has projected himself into the scene in a big way. The sequence of tenses marks the moves by which he makes you accept this: from "is/is", to "has", "has", "was", "took", "threw", then back to the present "doesn't". A new grammatical mood begins after eight lines (as in a sonnet): the subjunctive "wouldn't". In "I can imagine", the poet comes clean: those past tenses and subjunctives depend on his own, present- tense imagining, poured into the hat in its present-tense pouring along ("tumbles/gusting"), which comes to rest ("sitting") in an imaginary past before the hat got lost. Two more "would"s flesh out the imaginary owner, introducing the visual climax "all green man" - a surreally clear image whose resonances (the wild man of the woods, green jealousy taking total hold) prompt the emotional climax: "wife in another bed". This is where the plain language pays off. No complex "poetic" vocabulary softens that hurt, whose intensity is underlined by the repeated "no one" over the line-break of the penultimate line. A man "has given up" here. "Any man would be glad to keep" what is lost. But it had a volition of its own (the wind "wouldn't lift" it "alone"), and is not reclaimed.

Is the poem talking through its hat (like the jealousy "all through" it)? Are the worries as absurd as the images? Sweeney does not say; he only suggests, via the sinister comedy of his imagination, two mad metaphors ("like" a frisbee decapitating an imaginary statue which doesn't resemble an imaginary wife; thoughts "like" garlic in pores), and the Damoclean mortality threatening that imaginary man - in "not unhealthy, yet".

Is all this fanciful? It is the poem's fancifulness, not mine. In a way, fancifulness is its main theme. Its power comes from tension between the transparently clear language and bizarre, doors-into-other-worlds surprisingness of the imagination.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

"The Hat" appears in The Bridal Suite (Cape)