Desire Lines – Unselected Poems 1966-2000, Barry MacSweeney (edited by Luke Roberts), Shearsman 2018, SKU 978-1-84861-579-3, £16.95
In Desire Lines, Luke Roberts and Shearsman have done readers of poetry the very great service of bringing together much of Barry MacSweeney’s work that was excluded from the 2003 Bloodaxe volume, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000. In a sense, the two volumes should be read in tandem to provide a broader view of MacSweeney’s breadth of achievement, but for the sake of this review, I want to approach this new book as if it were the reader’s first encounter with his work.
Fortunately, the selection begins with the entire text of MacSweeney’s 1968 debut The Boy from the Green Caberet Tells of his Mother alongside half a dozen other poems from the same period, so my imaginary reader gets to see the poet’s early voice emerge from a welter of influences and reading, including 19th century French Symbolism, the emergent Cambridge School of Prynne and others, Basil Bunting and, perhaps, the Liverpool/Mersey Sound poets. This early work is assured, inventive, somewhat of its time and very much taken up with the act of walking, and these walks become occasions of fine perception:
It is not
it is not
What binds these poems is their regular prose syntax, even the title poem depends on semantic effects to achieve a sense of dislocation:
The mail coach upturned,
wheels spin like planets,
poems pinned to its shafts!
Dames, merchant, musketeer,
in the dead season.
This is apprentice work, albeit of a high order, the echoes of others running through the emerging individual voice of the poet. Within a few years syntactic and spatial disjunction found its way into his repertoire, especially in the 1971 sequence Twelve Poems and a Letter he co-wrote with his then partner Elaine Randell. here the words explode across the page in a more thorough-going open-field manner than he had previously employed. How much of this change is due to Randell’s influence is not something the reader can be sure of, but the immediate return to the safety of the left margin in the two longish and very personal poems that follow, Fools Gold (dedicated to Randell) and Dance Steps (For Paul). While these poems abandon open-field composition, they are open in other ways, open to the world outside and inside the poet’s mind:
by the river
what a long winter
I photograph myself
then tear it up
Both these poems and the next work collected here, Toad Church, are dated 1972, a measure of MacSweeney’s virtue and vice of prolific abundance. Toad Church is one of the many abandoned longer projects that occur across his career, and it’s not difficult in this case to see why. It reads as a grand failed experiment, with the poet pushing his materials beyond the then limitations of his technique. This was followed by the more modestly ambitious Fog Eye, in part, at least, an elegy to fellow poet Mark Hyatt. Here the material and technique blend in a more controlled, but deeply personal, disjunctive conjunction that is moving without sentimentality:
An irrecoverable move not quite plume
or slow-motion wing-beat.
The bird, book, flower, man, all fold up
with the approaching cumulus sudden dark.
And then we have what is one of the great recovered treasures to be found in this book, the 1973 sequence Pelt Feather Log. Although unfinished, there is not the same sense here of a work abandoned because it was outside the poet’s reach; the open-endedness is fitting to the open composition of the poem. In some respects, this is a variation on the classic trope of town versus country, with the dull routines and casual violence of the city being set against an almost Edenic vision of the rural. The poem opens in London, a place of
matic bovver boots, nuts
bolts gleaming oiled wrench
and rusty scaffold crown
and then moves from this site of strife to the reconciliation of the countryside:
after three stops
we reached the summit
behind the house
and all problems and heat
resolved in the sea wind
This rural location is specifically aligned with the biblical root of the country/town, nature/civilisation dichotomy shortly after this resolution:
mark the open branch pressed against the garden wall
this is your eden, among withered fruit
and is later further called out through the element of water when the purification found by standing under a waterfall is contrasted with the ‘wet oily dirt’ of city rain. Sadly, there is a snake in this eden, too, the inner demon that would haunt MacSweeney’s life and work until the end:
sad drunk self
mewing cloyed brain
tipping on desk
to write murder
in the vine.
In Roberts’ selection, this is followed by the distinctly ordinary Starry Messenger which in turn is followed by the quite extraordinary Black Torch (1978). This consists primarily of documentary poetry around the history of industrial unrest among the mining community in Durham. Drawing on first-hand testimony in the local dialect, it invites comparison with Jarrow March by Tom Pickard (to whom it is dedicated) which was broadcast on the BBC in 1976, and Bill Griffiths’ 1990s sequences drawing on similar source materials. One of the distinguishing features of MacSweeney’s work here is that it draws on the dialects of both the miners and the owners, so that we hear both groups in their own voices, with the warmth and humanity of the former highlighted by the cold calculation of the latter:
they fined him 3 and 6 for losing a shovel
yi can buy one for a shullin in the shop
ti put ya tally on the tub
ti tell wees done it
the keeker at the tub
i am a kind and indulgent master
they are infatuated with this union
it is a rabble
led by radicals and revolutionaries
should i speak with them
There are passages in this poem where the present and recent (relatively) struggles are placed in a longer temporal context, taking in the early history of the region, in ways that indicate that MacSweeney may have been absorbing lessons from the work of David Jones
Roman sentries dreaming of Naples
pulled down by long hooks from the wall
as Alaric approached the gates
of the seven hills
there have been straight roads through Newcastle
& household gods
In his introduction, Roberts discusses the impact of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 impacted on MacSweeney’s poetry, making it more overtly political and angrier. However, one of the main targets of his anger, corrupt, venal and ‘sell-out’ Labour politicians are already there in Black Torch and later on in the book Arthur Scargill (the trade union leader who lead the miners in a strike that broke both the unions and the existence of their employment) and Thatcher are given equal blame for what happened. The sad reality is that the political poetry he wrote through the 1980s and 1900s is generally dull, repetitive and difficult to read. This comes to a head in the 1998 volume Postcards from Hitler.
Discussing this later work, Roberts talks about the poet’s ‘pessimism and bravado’. For this reader at least, there certainly is pessimism, and some bravado, but these are drowned out by a great deal of self-indulgent name dropping and a bitterness of spirit that gets in the way of the poetry, such as it is, with page after page of writing that displays the very worst of the Ginsberg/Blake inspired self-aggrandising litany:
I am Lucifer
little miss Froo Froo,
very Sixties white no-whats
ah-ha, Marianne Faithfull,
Give it to you Neil boy, Tony boloney,
let’s see what happens.
This also mars his variations on Apollinaire, Horses in Boiling Blood
Young poet Barry
Already you have witnessed the appalling world
What is your judgement on the adults who betrayed you
Try as I might, it is difficult to divorce this degree of self-indulgence from what Roberts calls ‘the terminal crisis of MacSweeney’s alcoholism’. There is a frantic quality to the writing that, married with lapses into deep sentimentality, that remind you of being cornered in a pub by a highly intelligent, extremely articulate, but ultimately dull stranger who insists on telling you their troubles.
It is then an enormous relief to come, at last, to MacSweeney’s final extended piece of writing, the prose-poem sequence Letters to Dewey, a warm, self-deprecating set of words of advice to the son of the poet and friend Stephen Rodefer.
Here, at the end, the self-absorption gives way to a genuine interest in another human being, and sentimentality to deep feeling. There is a sense that MacSweeney may have a sense of his own possible failings as a parent, but these are subsumed into a drive to pass on experience in a way that is shot through with humour and warmth:
Listen Dewey, I am a common man. I am as common as muck. I am the original muck-spreader after farmers Noble and Nicholl who built their ginormous leeks up here in the high grounds and we all sat around and read Zane Grey when the fires died and we were dead asleep until the lentils and the beasts the next dawn.
Being a common man is most special.
What you have to do is turn it.
So, what would my imagined new reader make of MacSweeney based on this book? My feeling is that she would be impressed by the notion of a poet of rare gifts that were all too often unfulfilled, largely through the circumstances of his personal life. However, the cumulative effect of the early work, Pelt Feather Log, Black Torch and Letters to Dewey should be enough to convince her that at his best, he was a poet of real and important achievement. Those of us who value poetry should be grateful for Roberts for bringing this work back into the public domain and to Shearsman for publishing the fruits of his labours.