Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

"Horse Music" by Matthew Sweeney (Bloodaxe, 2013)

Acknowledgements from The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, The Dark Horse, LRB, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, etc. Revealingly, not one of these pieces uses a prose format. I think part of my problem with this book is that I've read Flash Fiction. Poems like "The Vintner's Boat" or "The Village of Scarecrows" look slight, pock-marked with white-space, when compared with pieces by, say, David Gaffney. One standard pattern is to start normally, then go a bit weird three-quarters of the way through. Another is to journey to visit/see something. "A History of Glassblowing" (which won 2nd prize in the 2010 National Poetry Competition) is one of the list poems. It mentions 8 imaginary creations - "in ... the year 1365, a glassblower blew/ a mermaid that came to life, and swam/ away" ... "in 2004, ... three/ glassies blew a new solar system/ that they let float up and away". On the plus side are many such templates (and some poems drift from one image to the next), many interesting details, some worthwhile ideas/plots, and (for a poetry book) many words.

"The Glass Chess Set" is one of many poems that have the germ of a decent idea but don't take it far. Ditto "Domestic" where radiator noise is made by gnomes ... who are artistic ... who do it just for the narrator, a squib that requires 24 line-breaks! "Lunch in Alfama" begins leisurely with "Down the hill from Castelo de Sao Jorge where the African King kept two lions in a wing of the palace, and traps were set for insolent, infidel besiegers, we sat at a table on a restaurant terrace and ordered grilled cuttlefish and sardines, with a bottle of Dao white. A guitarist was playing the zither tune from The Third Man". On p.47 a white peacock says "I am not like my gaudy brothers - all blue, green, with those eyes spread out when they fan open their tails, trying to get those dowdy females to mate with them" - so what's new? "The Lost Gold Medal" takes more than a page on an idea that needn't have emerged from the notebook. Ditto "The Naming of Horses".

There are many links between poems. In "Sausages" there are internal links - the end of each stanza is echoed at the start of the next one - like linked sausages? But the poem begins "There are six of you" and there are 7 stanzas.

From p.66 I have particular problems. I don't get "The Lake" - its line-breaks or the plot. I feel I've missed something, and I probably have. I don't get "On the Way to Potsdam" (the narrator encounters a fox on a German train. As often in poems, man and beast look at each other. The fox follows him/her to the Palace of Sanssouci). I don't get the c.250 word "Heckewald". On pages 72 and 73 are villanelles. "That Meal" has repeated lines "We shopped for that meal in three countries" and "A passport was needed to fill our pantries". The latter might have worked as a surprise punchline. The final stanza includes those lines plus "Everyone present was one of the sentries/ of the short line, each of those indented", the only example of poetry about poetry in the book, but what does it mean? The other villanelle, "A Princess", includes "what a hassle!" which in the context sound like a strange word choice. I don't get "Little Flower" which includes another swimming horse. "His Crows" is strange enough to be interesting. I don't get the 28-line "Saxophone Man". I liked "Stone" - the first-person stone (which could even be a poet) "wasn't the highest", it "avoided the cannon balls", wants to be reborn "in a stone house by a weir" owned by "a prince of rock music. I want to feel guitar-chords bouncing off me". "Fans" has more swimming horses; maybe I need to know more about Kleist's grave in order to appreciate it. "Eternity Strand" is a sestina - the less said about it the better.

I'm unsure if people who mostly read free verse are well qualified to assess these pieces. I'd like to hear what Formalists think about the villanelles and sestinas (and the few other poems that also use end-rhyme). To me those poems sound laboured. I'd like to hear what fabulists and Flash writers think of the prose pieces. My favourites are "Burning" and "The Tunnel".

Having read the reviews I see that people mostly like this book, finding more (dark) humour, (restrained) emotion, mystery and force of imagination than I do. I'd say that the trick for readers is to pace yourself, relax, and not hope for too much; to be easily beguiled by exotica and fable; to ignore line-breaks.

Other reviews

  • Carl Griffin (Wales Arts Review) (Too many poems in Horse Music are overly colourful and forgettable)
  • Patrick Cotter (Southword) (His poems can appear as mere whimsy to those who look to poetry to affirm a symmetrical and coherent view of the world, but the truth is — the world is asymmetrical, the world is incoherent. ... Horse Music is full of the sort of poem which reshapes truth through the imagination, presents what you always intuitively knew in a way where you feel you are getting to know it, becoming acquainted with it, for the very first time as in a seminal experience. )
  • Emma Weatherhead (Literature Works) (The musical aspect of Sweeney’s poetry is found in his talent for producing hypnotic rhythms, which often contributes to the eerie and mesmeric quality of his work)
  • Sierra Nevada Review (Gone are the “well-made-poems” and in their place come byzantine ornamentations in the form of micro-narratives that spread out across ages ... Sweeney obfuscates his poems in ornate tapestries of illusion and black humor ...It is the everydayness of Sweeney’s poetry that makes it so appealing now and what will make it so enduring for the future )
  • Jack Underwood (Poetry Review) (Horse Music is structured according to a fresh logic, too, through the ordering of its poems. By placing poems containing the same words, images, or similar ideas in close proximity the book feels oddly sewn together)
  • Terry Kelly (London Magazine) (Having divested himself of lyrical richness in his later work, Sweeney produces narrative-driven poems of hard won simplicity, which still remain mysterious and constantly open to the possibilities of imaginative adventure ... Starkly stated but conversational, Sweeney's obsessive tales from the mind's darkest hinterland have carved out their own imaginative terrain ... Horse Music is one of Matthew Sweeney's most emotionally charged and imaginatively various books to date.)

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