Review

Wolf Tongue: Poems 1975-2000 by Barry MacSweeney

Bloodaxe
£12.00

Cover of Wolf Tongue: white wolf on snow

Wolf Tongue is essentially MacSweeney's selected poems – chosen by the author himself shortly before his death in 2000. For much of his life his poetry was out-of-print or published in small run pamphlets. His brilliant, heartfelt voice and steel-sharp cut of English are probably unknown to most readers, even though his is more or less contemporary with Larkin (more on that later). So here it is – the good, bad and ugly.

The bad: much of his early writing is experimental, chiefly the Odes (1971-78) and the long poems of the 80s like Jury Vet. This poem opens Love is the drug and you need to score but you might imagine from this and others that it was not love intoxicating MacSweeney. But the early stuff is bold. MacSweeney dares. You can open the book with your thumb and be struck with pity, punched in the nose with apt, witty hubris or just get plain annoyed. And, for all its experimental look on the page, he has a natural way with the rhythm and venereal intensity of English.

The ugly: there is, for example in Hellhound Memos (1993), a Jack Nicholson venom (many-fingered man with a violet / shell suit, stolen BMW and a rack of E. I'm here!). There is also an affection for Middle English. When this stretches to a whole poem it grates. But this is the writer for whom the stars are always starres, and who is, as he titles one poem (for JH Prynne) Himself Bright Starre Northern Within. And, much as his concerns and expression are contemporary, there is a thread in his language which runs right back through history, which brings me to the good.

The good is exceptional. The good knocks spots off a leopard. The good begins in earnest with Pearl (1995/97). This series of poems refers back to the Middle English Perle which tells of a father’s grief for a lost child, an infant daughter who had lived not two years on earth. In a vision he beholds his Pearl, no longer a little child, transfigured as a queen of heaven; from the other bank of a stream which divides them she instructs him, teaches him the lessons of faith and resignation and leads him to a glimpse of the new Jerusalem.

MacSweeney's Pearl cannot speak. The struggle to speak, for Pearl; the struggle to articulate a passion, for the poet: this runs through and through. Also: a freshness in the face of nature, a writer of a wet, wild Much desired landscape loved keenly several lifetimes [...] bleak and bare of plastic life, who writes of borage, and rain and the fells as the rim of the world but also of the Barbour vegetarians, who couldn't / stand the nailed-down winters.

Here, and in The Book of Demons, his writing is as redemptive as it is visceral, where the poet is abject and the language articulated like a pen-knife. MacSweeney, as he says in Demons, is the 'Mouth of Rustling and Relentless Blades'. A writer who works with a long line and is his own being like Whitman.

Great credit to Bloodaxe for championing MacSweeney's work in his last few years and publishing this retrospective, which is valuable enough for reprinting Pearl and The Book of Demons.  Showing the author's photo on this thick and handsome book to a friend, I say, 'Who's this?'  'Larkin' they say.  There is a striking resemblance. Both wrote window poems. Everything Larkin lacks is in MacSweeney. Larkin had a respected institution: MacSweeney had none. Larkin had cynicism and the leveling of feeling in all things that this brings: MacSweeney had despair, perhaps, but also passion and courage, the moth in the borage on a cold summer morning.

Matthew Williams

 

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