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Pippa Little Reviews ‘My Life as a Painter’ by Matthew Sweeney

I was drafting this review when the news came that Matthew Sweeney had died on August 5th. I’d like to think of him, poet with a dried sunflower in one buttonhole and a dwarf red tulip in the other (as in ‘These Colours’), resuming his calling in the afterlife, enjoying the very best of food, drink and jazz. Of course his death gives this last collection – his twelfth – a poignancy; yet on re-reading My Life as a Painter the life-force evoked and celebrated is stronger than ever and I’m sure this collection will prove a fittingly graceful and insouciant finale to Matthew Sweeney’s utterly original spirit.

Taking the cover, a photograph of van Gogh’s palette layered with visceral daubs of paint, as a kind of ground, each poem reads as a small painting of imagination brought forth from its busy mess of mundane substance – the magic process Sweeney makes his own in his tender, funny, self-deprecating manner. You can smile broadly at the story-telling full of Irish charm while being chilled and unsettled by its darker depths at the same time. There are the biggest of the big questions faced here, but obliquely. Poems on hiding places and refuges consider what it takes to be or feel safe: the tension is always there between being inside/outside, being at risk in either state, and the ambivalence of negotiating these, as in ‘The Hidden Oasis’ where “you’ll stretch yourself out like a corpse/ to dream you’re outside, and can’t get in”.

Sweeney confronts the prospect of death with all his “perverse willpower” and draws strength from his own practice – many of these poems describe the acts of writing and painting as gestures in defiance of oblivion, as in the book’s title poem where he considers the role of the creative artist with almost godlike powers on what to leave out, (the living), what to include (the dead), and creates a kind of mythic ritual, part Pagan part Catholic, of loaves and bread within the nature morte. Always sardonic, undercutting any potential for hubris, the later poems in the book seem more accepting of the inevitable, even finding in it a kind of peace.

I only met Matthew Sweeney once, briefly, before a reading he gave at Newcastle some years ago. I was drawn to the cadences and musicality of his reading, how deceptively simple his story-telling seemed, the warmth of his delivery. Watching the film of this collection’s launch in Cork when he was obviously unwell made me remember that earlier time – even then, life had felt fragile.

In Sweeney’s universe everything has multiple and perplexing meanings – his ‘alternative realism’ permits the everyday to co-exist with the fantastic in equally poignant and hilarious ways. From one page to the next he can express (as in ‘The Thin Brothel’) the awkward loveliness of a lost domain and melodramatic exaggeration (‘The Red Helicopter’) in which the poet has the ability to accept himself as ridiculous – a very human and engaging quality.

Though often communication is difficult, as in ‘The Message’, and though people try to help one another, yet remain at the mercy of secrets, and are mysterious even to those whom they most want to reach, ultimately Sweeney believes in the transformative power of the creative act and it’s this which gives these poems, sad though they might be in this context, their strange, disturbing joy.

Pippa Little

My Life As A Painter by Matthew Sweeney is published by Bloodaxe Books, 2018

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