Skip to main content

Review - “Shadow of the Owl” by Matthew Sweeney

Steve Spence

“Shadow of the Owl” by Matthew Sweeney, pub. Bloodaxe. 103 pages   2020   £10.99

I’d not read a lot of Matthew Sweeney’s poetry prior to engaging with Shadow of the Owl, his final book, which deals with the last year of his life during which he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The image of the owl becomes a dark persona, an uninvited guest who appears and disappears, fuelling an inner dialogue where the poet reflects upon his worsening situation in a state of near paranoia which dominates the entire collection. There is plenty of energy in this writing though and I shall certainly be looking at Sweeney’s earlier work after having encountered this rather sad tome, which nevertheless is filled with an irrepressible resistance to the inevitable. If there is a prevailing influence it’s that of Kafka, a writer who Sweeney had much time for and whose presence here is undeniable.


Let’s take a poem from the opening sequence of twelve twenty liners entitled ‘The Owl’ by way of example:




          I felt the presence of the owl last night –

          He was in the room with me. Not literally,

          he appeared in a dream, where a blue van

          struggled up an icy road, before sliding back,

          in a horrible, wriggling way, to what felt

          like an end. I’m not sure how it seemed so.

          And I can’t say where the owl was in this

          little film, except he was definitely there.

          This morning I came down the stairs,

          expecting some sign from him. I found

          a few brown feathers on a white plate

          on a kitchen table. OK, then, he must be

          a brown owl, but why donate some feathers,

          and what did these denote? I made coffee,

          then put on a CD of Anouar Brahem’s oud

          that seemed to suit the moment. And I

          decided it was the time to poach two eggs

          to serve on top of two slices of rye bread

          while I primed the espresso machine again

          and asked myself what the owl was saying.


Dreams are a constant device in Sweeney’s poetry where a hazy, penumbral imagery fuels a questioning, anxious narrative which attempts to analyse and interpret imagined events in a manner which may delay or prevent an inevitable outcome. There’s a sense of improvisation, allied to a learning lightly worn which makes this poetry attractive to read even though its subject matter is inevitably dark and filled with foreboding. Then again, the ‘foodie’ element in his work is irrepressibly uplifting and features throughout the collection, including those poems which recall escapades in Central and Eastern Europe. Most of ‘the action’ in the present relates to a suburban environment in Cork which has a more domestic environment.


In ‘The Crucifixion’ from ‘The Sequence’ we get the following: “I was boiling a beetroot when the doorbell rang. / ‘Who the hell is this?’, I muttered, marching / to the door.” Again in nightmare mode we have a scenario where the poet has apparently ordered a cross for his own crucifixion, complete with the required paperwork. This mix of bureaucracy and absurd horror presented in the form of a surreal dream is par for the course in this imaginative projection and has an almost literal quality which fuses comedy with something much more sinister: “The first man grinned, shaking his bag of nails / and patting the hammer in his belt. ‘We’ve come / to carry out your crucifixion.” After the apparition has been repulsed and the poet safely indoors we have the final two lines which combine the domestic and flavoursome with a less wholesome note: “I went back to the kitchen to check my beetroot. / It had nearly boiled dry and the water was red.” The brief reference to a ‘giant clown’ adds to the spooky atmosphere.


There’s a relish for life here, via a celebration of music, art, food and travel which highlights the sense of loss given a diagnosis of a terminal illness but Sweeney’s range of subject matter and his relentless assault on ‘the owl and its ilk’ in a series of strange, dreamlike scenarios keeps the pages turning. I think on balance I found the opening sequence which focusses intensely on the disturbing image of the owl, and which becomes a sort of visceral hatred of the creature to be the most effective part of this collection, but it’s filled with a rich overflow of sensual imagery which pits robust health and pleasure against decline and decay. There’s a good humour throughout which is irrepressible and at times very moving.


The final poem in ‘Last Poems’ is worth quoting in full:


          Mouse Sandwich

              (for David O’Meara)


          After they gave me morphine

          following the incident when my heart

          stopped for eight minutes and a bunch

          of doctors in red suits attached

          a loose curtain of coloured wires

          to my body, I woke up in intensive care

          to later try to sleep again, a very

          light, broken sleep, full of weird

          dreams. In the first of these

          I was eating a sandwich on a riverbank,

          and when I was nearly finished I saw

          it featured a hairy slice of mouse.

          And yes, I gobbled this, and it was good.

          The chef was senor Morphine.

          I won’t tell you about the other dreams.


This has an almost Alice in Wonderland feel with its skewed logic and drug induced imagery but there’s also a sense of ‘everything will be alright’ about it which I found curiously sad and yet optimistic. This may be a strange choice of book to read at the present time but also perhaps relevant and I’m glad to have become acquainted with Sweeney’s work even if under such circumstances as those we’re living through.



 Copyright © Steve Spence, 2021


Popular posts from this blog

Review - High and Lonesome: Three Books: Crozier, Prynne, James

Andrew Duncan High and Lonesome : Three Books: John James, Striking the Pavilion of Zero, J.H. Prynne, High Pink on Chrome ; Andrew Crozier, High Zero (Shearsman, 2021; edited Ian Brinton)  The reason why these three books from 1975-6 and 1978 are being republished together is straightforward. Crozier had named a work High Zero , and when I interviewed him in 2003 he conceded that it referred to High Pink and Striking the Pavilion of Zero , and that he had used lines from those two works as keys to develop the High Zero poems from. Publication together allows one to read across and recover a part of the composition process. High Zero was published in 1978, later than the two poems it is a response to. The founding moment is The English Intelligencer , in which all three of these poets took part. This was an attempt to recapitulate the development of Charles Olson, up to about 1950; he was seen as both the continuator of Pound and as having thought profoundly about geography. T

Essay - Whatever Happened to the Poetry Manifesto?

MARTIN STANNARD WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE POETRY MANIFESTO? Recently I tried writing an essay that had the working title 'Why the Meaning of a Poem is the Last Thing You Should Think About'. I felt like I had something to say. It began like this: I can't help but remember what my old angling tutor used to say: “Be careful when you open a can of worms." Of course, he didn’t say any such thing, and I never had an angling tutor, but writers, and perhaps especially poets, can say anything and get away with it, because . . . Actually, I'm not sure why. I'm not even sure if it's true. If it is, it shouldn’t be. And I'm not sure about that, either. I think it's probably best if we accept a certain degree of uncertainty and subjectivity and other words that suggest everything is open to argument and get on with this. Just because something is open to argument doesn't mean it's wrong. Later (about 3000 words later) I decided I was on to a loser.

Review - "Bright Angel Proof" by Nick Power

Charlie Baylis Bright Angel Proof, Nick Power (£10, erbacce press) In the spring of 2016 a writer from the small Northwestern town of Hoylake, Nick Power, took a trip flying around America on budget airlines, soaking in all its big ticket tourist attractions and gaudy glories. The trip, and Power’s poems about the trip, come together to form Bright Angel Proof , a collection which evokes beat generation myths of a mystical America, but behind the lines Power knows that the beat generation era is done and perhaps was never really there to begin with. Power is too late to join the ranks of Ginsburg, Kerouac et al but at least he suggests that he might have something to say, which is more than most contemporary poets. Power attracts attention as a kind of modern Burt Lancaster, an adventurer of compelling (North) West Coast vibes and easy going company who, like Lana Del Rey, has ‘feathers in his hair...c hurning out novels like Beat poetry on Amphetamines.’ Power’s companion on the