Inquisition Lane is Matthew Sweeney’s eleventh collection and his second since moving to Bloodaxe with Horse Music in 2013. Both collections are substantial volumes weighing in at over ninety pages each with Inquisition Lane containing some sixty poems, while its predecessor had seventy. Normally, such copiousness would set alarm bells ringing, but with Sweeney one’s fears are soon allayed. As has always been the case with this fine poet, there is an impressive balance between containment and vision, so that however off the wall his flights of fancy might at first glance seem the details are precisely observed and rendered, the logic is impeccable, and the language restrained and clear. The collection opens with ‘The Dream House’, a poem whose four shapely stanzas draw us into Sweeney’s imaginative world:
The dream house was yellow
and had no chimneys. Its one
window was round, a porthole
so big a child could stand in it.
The door was smaller, and red,
with a golden chain and padlock.
Thereafter, as if this were the opening shot in a film, the scene expands to take in ‘a Zen / garden of sand raked in circles’ and, beyond it, ‘a long, / flat mountain’, ‘white goats’ and ‘a few climbers, or walkers.’ As in the poetry of Peter Bennet or Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Sweeney creates a parallel universe which seems similar to, but not quite the same as the one we are more familiar with. In ‘The Devil’s Castle’ he imagines another habitation, but here the vision is more outlandish and increasingly ominous: ‘It would be a genius who’d know / what to say there … I’d opt for the silence / of the moon, the stare of the sun.’ In this poem and throughout the collection there is an existential uncertainty, where the protagonists have to make their way as best they can: ‘I’d leave hungry, / thirsty. I’d hitchhike back to the / harbour and take a boat to Limbo. / I’d keep looking after me, though’. Sometimes, however, there is an almost childlike satisfaction in the act of creation or in the successful completion of a performance, as in ‘Circus’:
The dog walked the tightrope
with a yellow bow round his neck
and a red top hat.
He was followed by a monkey
on a unicycle. The hairy fellow
wore a luminous green jockstrap.
The visual impact of the writing here and its painterly qualities are in evidence throughout this collection in poems such as ‘Blue in the Tiergarten’ and ‘Green Sky’, while Sweeney’s affinity with magic realism is evinced in ‘The Indian’, which could almost be an incident taken from a novel by Márquez: ‘he / remembered, in a previous life, being / a pre-hispanic Indian in Monte Albán … then collapsed asleep … to dream of his murder / at the hands of a Spanish conquistador.’ In ‘The Poem You’ve Been Waiting For’ one senses that this is a poet who has the confidence to follow his muse wherever it takes him and that he expects the reader to do the same:
This is the poem you’ve been waiting for –
me too – and in it I have a blind dog
walking alongside a slithering rattlesnake
on north main street in Cork, where
Romanian gypsies in long skirts walk by
in groups, and Auntie Nellie’s sweetshop
The tone is even more defiantly explicit in ‘Do Wa Diddy Diddy Do’ where the poet’s song earns him ‘a German expletive’ to which he replies ‘in kind, barely disturbing the song’s / rhythm.’ Moreover, if nothing is certain, then maybe one is almost justified in having a childlike belief in miracles as in ‘The Chocolate Mine’, one of this collections tours de force:
They’re hacking away in the chocolate-
mine beneath la Madeleine, and soon
their dark wares will go on sale.
They discovered it during a foundation
check. They didn’t believe it at first, till
the bishop pronounced it a miracle …
Yet even here there is an underlying current of seriousness: ‘In a year, the cardinals would wonder / what they did before the chocolate mine, / what they’d do when it ran out.’ Inquisition Lane is a hugely entertaining collection with high jinks aplenty and yet from early on the humour is tempered by an acute awareness of mortality which becomes increasingly foregrounded as one works through the collection. It reaches its powerful conclusion, in an elegiac sequence written in memory of John Hartley-Williams, the poet’s friend and collaborator, with whom he wrote Death Comes to the Poets, their brilliant send up of the poetry scene; and although much in life is uncertain one thing is clear: that death comes to us all, a fact that Sweeney explores unflinchingly. Early on in Inquisition Lane, ‘Cat Burial’ is a beautifully restrained description of a pet interment that is devoid of sentimentality: ‘I’d picked that site because the beast / had sat in the tree, hoping to claw small / birds down to the ground.’ In ‘The Insurance Agent’ the carnage associated with a plane crash is all part of the day’s work. Faced with the reality of death, the Catholic Church, like ‘The One-eyed Philosopher of Katmandu’, offers platitudes but no comfort. In wide-ranging and manifold ways many of these poems are haunted by death. Two murderers are punished by a vengeful crow. A Matador feasts on testicles and believes he is invincible. However, it is when he is exploring his own mortality and that of the people who have been close to him that Sweeney is at his most poignantly direct. Returning from the funeral of Seamus Heaney he declares that he will soon forget ‘the bishop .. / croaking out .. some blasted Latin ‘ but will remember ‘your Derry voice, your laugh, and yes, maybe a poem or two.’ Just as moving are his lines to Dennis O’Driscoll and John Hartley Williams. Poised and memorable, too, is ‘The Stomp’, a brief poem written in memory of his sister:
You were the only one who could do
the stomp with me, my dead sister …
You were a wild thing, a rare thing.
You were a small horse prancing.’
Most direct of all are ‘The Loop’ where the poet is scathing on the subject of religion and states baldly that he is ‘sick of coffins’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Old’ where the protagonist looks back at his former self and wonders, somewhat forlornly, if there is ‘any chance / at all of becoming that lithe fellow again?’
Faced with the inevitability of death, our only recourse is to make the most of the one life we have, and this Sweeney does as he celebrates the good things in life with an epicurean verve. In ‘Co-author’ John Hartley Williams is portrayed as a bon viveur who liked his food, drink and jazz, subjects obviously close to Sweeney’s heart. Then there is his delight in the vibrancy of colours and the quirkiness he sees all around him, which translates not only into the creation of purely imagined worlds but the Verfremdungseffekt he achieves in his descriptions of real places such as New York, San Francisco, Paris. In ‘Bouncing’, a poem whose ostensible subject is trampolining, he concludes that ‘His world was the same when he stopped’, which is not dissimilar to Auden’s ‘Poetry makes nothing happens’. Nonetheless, in this poem and so many others, there is an exhilaration in the act of creation and joy in savouring the moment. Matthew Sweeney is a hugely talented poet and this is a richly imagined and rewarding collection in which he is writing at the height of his powers.