Books: The Bridal Suite by Matthew Sweeney (Jonathan Cape pounds 7)
Thursday 09 October 1997
His poetry lives in the imagination's move out to the unknown. The work is one large metaphor: a parable for the human condition. Which is, of course, being alone in a world of Kafka-esque ambush.
Tragedy is Sweeney's starting-point, but he tackles it quietly. Like the sun in the fable, he gets your coat off not by blowing up a storm, but by his gleefully, weirdly black humour. "A shoelace and a penis lying in a field / on a cold blue February morning... Does anyone / know yet the penis is gone?" One speaker, alone "in the bridal suite / without the bride", can't "handle another night like that / not wet, as held expected / but not dry either". This loneliness, heightened by wry smiles, is unique to Sweeney. The American Charles Simic achieves it, but there the emotional work is done mainly by objects. In Sweeney, people count.
The Bridal Suite is Sweeney's finest, most open collection yet. Several poems are marked "in memoriam"; one heartrending elegy describes a pilot who crash-landed but survived, unlike the addressee. Masses of sex, mostly implied; but in "Initiation" a shepherd samples solitary pleasures in London. "At least this way he wouldn't need blood tests". He finally makes it with two women: "different from the goat, he thought / as the short woman coaxed him stiff".
The Bridal Suite is about the incompleteness, loss and sadness of relationships; also about redemption through imagination, humour, and the sharing of both. Freud, according to Auden, "would have us be enthusiastic over the night". At the end of The Bridal Suite, the poet calls through a window to a bat: "Lovely creature of the night / come back, I miss you".
Sweeney is a paid-up confederate of Freud's night fauna. Hence the drownings, coffins, graveyards in his work, but also the humour, the surreal dreams. Sweeney is one of our finest poets of the unconscious; of darkness brought to light and madly, glintingly, against all expectation, shared.
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