George Szirtes, Bad Machine (Bloodaxe Books) £9.95
Matthew Sweeney, Horse Music (Bloodaxe Books) £8.95
The title of Sweeney’s latest collection is apt, for the effect of Horse Music grows in force as the cumulative effect of the poems mounts up, in this working the same way as a musical composition. The horse of the title represents the forms of otherness that pervade the collection, not only of animal life, but of the unsayable and shifting aspects of contemporary human and animal experience – bereavement, fate, isolation, hope, regret, completeness, ecological concern, the surrealness of the domestic – that, when worked hardest, poetry can give name to more succinctly and with greater specificity than most other expressive forms.
At its best in this collection, Sweeney’s poetry carries the weight of genuine emotion, and when he successfully harnesses this with form, lexicon and sound patterning, the effect is at once moving and awe-inspiring; as in the poem ‘Haiku for My Father’, in which he addresses individually, delicately and with great honesty the aspects of life which death doesn’t permit to be wrapped up or finally closed.
The collection also sensitively addresses the violence and tenderness inherent in the relationship between animal and human forms of life, in poems such as ‘The Photos on the Wall’ (which wonderfully describes ‘the hoof-frothed foam’), ‘Sausages’, ‘The Naming of Horses’, ‘A Song About a Crow’, ‘The Sick Cow’ and the title poem ‘Horse Music’, so much so that the use of language to tread the borderline between human-animal and non-human animal becomes one of its dominant concerns.
Whilst the collection as a whole gains momentum, the ends of earlier poems let those poems off the hook rather than interrogating their subjects far enough; ‘Pan on the Pink Bridge’, ‘Burning’ and ‘How I Was Made 20 Years Younger’ fall into this category. Otherwise strong poems feel let down by a slight obviousness of description, thus ‘no scarecrow looks like another/ some are tall, some small’ (‘The Village of Scarecrows’), ‘I’d rent a room in hilly Alfama’ (‘The Blue Hammock’); at other times however, and sometimes within the same poem, this clear-sighted aspect and simple description takes on a unique and uncomplicated truthfulness: ‘The seagulls are huge there, and musical’ (‘The Blue Hammock’), and ‘the silver birch with my initials stretched/ upward to its far-off father, the moon’ (‘The Blue Hammock’). In particular, as these examples demonstrate, Sweeney is accomplished in his use of both caesurae and enjambment. Other highlights of the collection include ‘The Bomb’, ‘The Fall’, ‘The Glass Chess Set’, ‘Communiqué’, ‘The Slow Story of No’, and ‘The Yellow Golf Ball on the Lawn’.
The use of form in Horse Music likewise gathers pace as it moves forward, so that if the repetitions of the early sestina ‘Confiscated’ feel somewhat lacklustre by the poem’s end, the sestina ‘Eternity Strand’ near the collection’s close feels as fresh and elemental at its end as at its opening. Horse Music is a collection in which, whilst not every poem wholly satisfies, each forms part of a vibrant picture which resolutely does.
George Szirtes’ collection Bad Machine addresses the theme of the body and its beauties and foibles. It shares with Sweeney’s collection a desire to reach across the borders from the human body to the bodies of animals, notably in the strongly successful ‘Fish Music’, ‘The Cat Speaks of Hunger’ and ‘Canzone: Animal’. Szirtes in this collection demonstrates a mastery of form – his sestina ‘Postcard: The Rower’ (1. Rower) feels renewed and reinvigorated by its repetitious language as the form progresses. Throughout Bad Machine, Szirtes seems to chew language over in order to get everything out of the words he has selected. His formal preferences – the sestina, the canzone, mirror poems – tend towards repetition, and Szirtes uses this recurrence of words to his poems’ advantage, leaving no meaning undisturbed or uncovered. Despite the threats and attacks upon the body described by Szirtes, his poems strive to form bodies of language which renew old cells and stave off nullity – ‘Actually, yes’, ‘We Love Life Whenever We Can’ and ‘Snake Ghost’ do this vigorously. The collection’s minimenta also thrive, working hard to cover the variousness of their topics from diverse angles.
The collection’s weaker poems, notably ‘Snapshots From a Riot’ and ‘Children of Albion’, are two of its more political poems. The poems succeed and, whilst not didactic, manage originality in their description, but lack some of the strong verbal ingenuity and formal tenaciousness of Szirtes’s other poems, as the language is pulled in too many directions. Perhaps it is also that the poems’ topics seem too large, vital and difficult to be addressed in such small spaces.
The poems work to give linguistic form to physical and invisible bodies of human experience, and in this they are accomplished. ‘Footnotes’ is successful tribute to that body part; ‘Canzone: The Small of the Back’ is a beautiful homage to memory, life, health, love, gratefulness and, in Szirtes’s phrase, ‘of minutiae, of all the vast small-/ ness of the universe that is this field and that field’; the title poem ‘Canzone: Bad Machine’ gracefully undresses the concept of the human body, aging and health, declaring ‘There’s no machine that’s not a bad machine’, and ‘McGuffin’s Tune’ uncannily describes the forgotten tune of a song as calling ‘Like death itself: clear, serious, perplexed’. At its best, Szirtes’s poetry has an ability to name the previously nameless, to put its linguistic finger precisely on the pulse of a hazy, unarticulated concept, and give voice to moments of shared human existence which under normal circumstances ebb away unspoken. A critic will struggle to describe the collection’s linguistic grace and depth of subject as well as the poems themselves, which can both be garnered from this short excerpt from ‘Canzone: Animal’:
Keep moving, thoughts; listen out for bones
whispering in the flesh, their song like smoke,
their words those befitting the fleet animal
glimpsed in the distance, leaping into reckoning.