‘My Life as a Painter’ by Matthew Sweeney – Bloodaxe Books


I posted yesterday of my sadness in hearing about the passing of poet Matthew Sweeney. I had written in April here on the announcement of his having motor neuron disease so it wasn’t a shock but nonetheless a surprise to hear of his death so soon, aged 65.

And it is neither here nor there, but I regret not having written my review of his latest collection My Life as a Painter sooner rather than now, though it is never too late to celebrate and pay tribute to such a distinctive writer. Not by way of defense but rather sad irony, the picture leading on this piece is of his book next to my computer, ready for reviewing, placed there no more than a few days ago.

This is a snapshot look at a collection I am still reading and enjoying so much. It is, as ever, wonderfully peculiar in its poetic circumnavigating through a world he narrates like a spinning top of images and ideas.

In the opening poem The Prayer, a prayer ‘intoned to a sunflower’ that was watched – the sunflower – by a neighbour’s black cat, prompts the moon to rise again ‘and regain its rightful place in the sky’ as we also rise to enter a magical universe controlled by the imagination of Matthew Sweeney.

In Five Yellow Roses, a regular visiting Siamese cat – we know it isn’t the neighbour’s – is again an animal witness to another splendid scenario as it hisses at the back of a delivery man who has delivered five yellow roses. In ‘the shit-faced side-streets of life’ and this poem, the flowers’ recipient is so moved

‘…to encourage her
to cook saffron rice, with turmeric-tinged prawns
and sautéed yellow courgettes. She didn’t play
the Ry Cooder where yellow roses say goodbye’

and now I know I share a taste in music with Sweeney.

These few extracts are mere farts in the storm of imagining to come. No Maps begins in the colour yellow again, opening with

‘Instead of studying the map any further,
get on your yellow Vespa and fart off
into the forest to bump along that dirt-

but what follows is a cascade of poetic incident and journeying that makes one dizzy to read by following round and round in utter delight.

In The Parrot’s Soliloquy, Sweeney places the savage plight of refugees within the frame of birds flying freely across borders, and in this overall straight account, absurdity is found not in the usual wilder imagining but in the contrast between the natural world and that of human experience,

‘I speak for all feathered
folk on this matter, watching
you people mass in stations
or slip through razor wire
or suffocate in airless trucks
or drown in the still sea.’

This contrast is our focus until the mention at the poem’s end of the ortolan, that marinated and fattened bird eaten traditionally by the French with a cloth over the eyes so the biting off the body from the head is not witnessed: more fake unseeing in an uncaring world.

The Dance of the Rats is a longer poem of 18 stanzas in three parts. Where Sweeney’s storytelling so often romps surreally at pace through single blocks of prose, this takes a longer route through the absurd when rats squeal like a Mozart piece, and passing a funeral makes the narrator think only of a waiting Malbec and an already prepared chili con carne ‘defying/any Texan to better’. The poem includes seagulls, crows, bats, ‘my dog Bonzo’ and references to

‘…a man who longed to eat
the fingers of monkeys, fried with garlic
and wash them down with glasses of piss.’

And earlier before the poem reaches its violent ending – which I won’t spoil by describing – there are these lines that I imagine are one of the many truths within these poems, and which here I assume are about Sweeney’s disease and ultimate dying, but of course I can’t be sure,

‘No, the pains come unannounced
in all parts of the body now, as if
the end is being introduced gradually.’

As I said earlier, this is just a brief light on a few poems in the whole, taken from early ones, and there is so much more vibrant storytelling of continually surprising routes for readers to meander and/or be driven through in a vivid stream of consciousness.

I’ll close with the title poem and latch on to the fact that Sweeney chooses pigeon as his favourite of the three birds in the piece, which would be my selection too, like listening to Cooder, all shot by his father and pot-roasted by his grandfather. It is a story unusually sustained as a singular focus on this apparent reminiscence – that is until the end where he contemplates painting [as still life, not literally] coloured loaves of rye.


[I did also yesterday write a poem here in homage to Sweeney’s influence on me whenever I attempt a prose poem approximating to his sense of exploration and entertainment]

3 thoughts on “‘My Life as a Painter’ by Matthew Sweeney – Bloodaxe Books

  1. Pingback: ‘Exchangeable Bonds’ by Justin Jamail – Hanging Loose, New York | mikeandenglish

  2. Pingback: Poetry Reviewed 2018 | mikeandenglish

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