Matthew Sweeney

Life
1952- ; b. Co. Donegal; ed. Malin National School; Gormanstown, Co. Meath; and UCD, where he embarked on a degree in chemical engineering; later ed. at North London Polytechnic and Freiburg University; issued A Dream of Maps (1981), followed by A Round House (1983), The Lame Waltzer (1985), Blue Shoes (1989) and Cacti (1992); also The Flying Spring Onion (1992), a book of children’s verse; appt. writer-in-residence, South Bank Centre, London; reads his poetry in Nebraska, April 1997; issued The Bridal Suite (1997, a poetry collection that narrates a great many bizarre deaths; issued A Smell of Fish (2000), poetry; A Picnic on Ice (2002), selected poems; and Sanctuary (2004); appt. to judges’ panel of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award competition [c.2014]. ORM OCIL

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Works
Poetry
  • A Round House (London: Allison & Busby 1983);
  • The Lame Waltzer (London: Allison & Busby 1985);
  • Blue Shoes (London: Secker & Warburg 1989);
  • The Bridal Suite (London: Jonathan Cape 1997), 49pp.;
  • A Smell of Fish [Cape Poetry, 29] (London: Jonathan Cape 2000), 64pp.;
  • A Picnic on Ice: Selected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape 2002), 147pp.;
  • Sanctuary (London: Jonathan Cape 2004), 54pp.
Miscellaneous
  • with Jo Shapcott, ed. and intro., Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (London: Faber & Faber 1996), 306pp. [Introduction, pp.xv-xviii; incls. with Miroslav Hilum, Basco Papa, Octavio Paz, et al.; also the Irish poets Derek Mahon, Louis MacNeice, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett, Patrick Kavanagh, et al.; described by Faber as a weird second cousin of The Rattle Bag’];
  • ed., with Ken Smith, Beyond Bedlam: Poems Written Out of Mental Distress (Dublin: Anvil Press 1998);
Contributions (sel.)
  • The Sea at Pollan’, [poem] in Times Literary Supplement (24 July 1987), p.784;
  • “Boar”, poem, in Times Literary Supplement (21 March 2001);
  • “Weddings and Funerals”, poem in The Irish Times [Weekend] April 2000 [q.d.];
  • “Days of German” and “The UFO” [poems], in London Review of Books (8 Feb. 2001), p.25;
  • ‘Poems’, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Fall 2002/Spring 2003), pp.118-25 [“The Shadow Home”, “Pink Milk”, “The Aunt I Never Met”, “Artificial Blood”, “Abandoned”and “Sweeney”].

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Criticism
  • Ian Sansom, ‘Prickly People’, review of Cacti, in Times Literary Supplement (6 Nov 1992), p.26 [see extract];
  • Martin Sonenberg, ‘The Lyricism of Menace: Martin Sonenberg Interviews Matthew Sweeney’, Magma, 7 (1996), pp.17-27;
  • Dennis O’Driscoll, review of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade [Pulitzer winner 1997], in Times Literary Supplement (2 May 1997), p.26 [see extract];
  • Patrick Crotty, review of A Smell of Fish, in The Irish Times (17 July 2000), p.9. [see extract];
  • Mary Dalton, review of A Picnic on Ice, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Fall 2002/Spring 2003), pp.205-06;
  • Clair Wills, ‘Living below zero’, review of Sanctuary, in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 2004), Weekend [see extract].

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Commentary
Ian Sansom, ‘Prickly People’, review of Cacti, in Times Literary Supplement (6 Nov 1992), p.26: [it] ‘deals with prickly subjects [suicide, etc.]’; remarks on ‘[ ...] the peculiar vantage point and propriety of the language are characteristic of Sweeney’s scrupulous empathy. [...] Sweeney has always enjoyed high drama, and his poetry has always worked dramatically but in this new collection he is at his most fearless, humane and direct. [...] Sweeney’s process of squeezing out the Heaney in himself, of forcing his language to its absolute minimum, has taken a long time, but finally the imported and unnatural lush and lusciousness of the earlier collections has been entirely displaced by a spare story-telling technique that is all his own. The poem “Digging” is discretely tucked midway through Cacti, and humbly declines to make itself a statement, but it none the less calls Heaney’s poem of the same name to account by eschewing metaphor and disowning responsibility. [...] Demonstrative themes suit Sweeney’s imagination, but demonstrations don’t.’

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Dennis O’Driscoll, review of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade [Pulitzer winner 1997], in Times Literary Supplement (2 May 1997), p.26: ‘he [Sweeney] asked what I knew about urinary tract infection, male sexual dysfunctions, inflammations of the colon and diverticuli, the prognostic implications of chronic flatus’, while his wife is eulogised with Celtic afflatus, ‘praised in local song and story for her fierceness of her eyes, the depth of her intellection, the lithe perfections of her form, and her sensibilities of character.’

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Nick Laird, review of A Smell of Fish (London: Cape 2000) pb., 64pp., in Times Literary Supplement, 21 March 2001; notes that each poem begins with lines from other writers e.g., J. H. Williams, Kafka, Keats, Diane Di Prima, Shelley, Bok.

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Patrick Crotty, review of Matthew Sweeney, A Smell of Fish (Cape 2000), pp.64, in The Irish Times (17 July 2000): Crotty remarks, ‘Sweeney’s poems are almost all narratives rather than lyric distillations of emotion. The stories they tell, however, are incomplete, their omissions of crucial details leaving the reader with a sense of disturbance, of something “fishy” going on. Many pieces begin as low-key transcriptions of everyday events only to deepend quietly into mystery.’ Further remarks on Sweeney’s ‘subject matter in representing an unaccountable visitation from another world; cites “Our Resident”, “Long Distance”, Thaw” and “The Tombs”, “Animals”; writes that “Sweeney”, the funniest and perhaps most brilliant poem in the book, modernises the bird-king as the hypochondrical impractical alter ego of his Donegal namesake’, and speaks in conclusion of ‘this eerie, discommoding, consistently interesting volume.’ (p.9.)

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Clair Wills, ‘Living Below Zero’, review of Sanctuary, in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 2004), Weekend:‘Matthew Sweeney’s eighth collection begins with a “zero hour” poem set in a nameless city suffering unspoken catastrophe. The modern world of high-speed travel and mass consumption, of airports and supermarkets, is grinding to a halt. [...] Confronting the zero ground of our current nightmares, Sweeney’s asks how much - or how little - it takes to keep going. / Sweeney keeps returning to the thought of how much we have to negate in our effort to be ourselves, to stay alive. Throughout Sanctuary, characters inhabit an attenuated world, a universe of subtractions. His surreal fables focus on the pared down, curtailed life, and the methods we choose to shield it from further diminution. Even the arrival of electricity at a Donegal farmhouse in 1954 is experienced as a lessening - for the new plant requires feeding. But can we shore up our identity simply by denying the outer world? The “Sanctuary” of the title poem is a shelter built upon lies, a haven made from fears of a threatening outside. The narrator’s alarmist picture of comfort under siege turns out to be the stage-setting for a seduction. The real denials and deceptions, it seems, are occurring within. [...] Sweeney’s imagination is fascinated by all the ways we say no to experience, and how those denials build an enigmatic and above all deeply personal architecture around us.’

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Quotations
Boar”: ‘The mistake was having a teeshirt printed / with my family crest. No , the mistake was / being from a family with a family crest. / Do you know yours? I bet you don’t, / And I bet you don’t know how lucky you are. / And what a dumb family crest to have - / three wild boars! Can you imagine me / walking around with that lot on my front? [.. &c.]’ (Times Literary Supplement (21 March 2001, p.14.)

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Urine Therapy”: ‘No, he would never let a taste and a smell beat him, / and soon the variants in both led him to nudge / his diet to the bolder peripheries - curries, garlic, / asparagus, of course, the lemon grass and rotted shrimp / of Thailand, sashimi, chilli and basil, cabbage - / and along with the assortment of freshly squeezed juices / he slipped in the odd whisky or brandy night-cap / to give the slightest of frissons to that first sip / the following morning, and bring a smile to the face / behind which all the illnesses he was ruling out / were being listed […]’ Quoted in Clair Wills, supra.)

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References
Patrick Crotty, ed., Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1995), selects “To the Building Trade” [382]; “Tube Ride to Martha’s” [383].

Poems in The Inherited Boundaries: Younger Poets of the Republic of Ireland, ed. Sebastian Barry (Dolmen 1986):
from A Dream of Maps
Winter Story 144
Dream of Maps 146
The Permanent City 146
No Welcome 148
Last Supper 148
The Statue 149

144
146
146
148
148
149
From A Round House
A Round House 150
Golf 151
The Return 151
Lili Marlene 152
Imagined Arrival 152
New Year Party 153
The Dancehall 154
The Shoplifter 155

150
151
151
152
152
153
154
155
from The Lame Waltzer
Lissadell 156
The Lame Waltzer 156
Simultaneous Stories 157
Split Level 157
Sarsaparilla 158
A Scriptwriter’s Discipline 159
The Night Post 160
Ends 160
Cuba Street 161
The Submerged Door 162
Entries in a Diary 162
A Surrey Morning 164
The Bats 165


156
156
157
157
158
159
160
160
161
162
162
164
165

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Notes
Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (London: Jonathan Cape 1997), contains an account of Sweeney (p.146): ‘There are accounts of his inflation of the common cold to pneumonia or tuberculosis. His headaches are all brain tumours, his fevers meningitis, his hangovers all peptic ulcers or diverticulitis. Any deviations from the schedule of his toilet are bowel obstructions or colon cancer. He has been tested for every known irregularity except pregnancy, though he takes, on a seasonal basis, medication for PMS from which, no one doubts, he suffers. He is a consumer of medical opinion and keeps a list of specialists and their beeper numbers on his person. A cardiologist, an acupuncturist, an immunologist, an oral surgeon, an oncologist, a proctologist, and a behavioural psychologist join several psychic and holistic healers from regional and para-religious persuasions to make up Matthew’s medical retinue. The same numbers are programmed to speed-dial from his home phone. And where most of his co-religionists wear a medallion that reads In Case of Emergency Call a Priest, Sweeney’s reads Call an Ambulance. Call a Doctor. Please Observe Universal Precautions’. (Cited in Michael Faherty, That Other World: The Supernatural and the Fantastic in Irish Literature, ed. Bruce Stewart, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1998, pp.144-45).

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