Monday, 27 January 2014

Some Poems by Matthew Sweeney

Matthew Sweeney was born in Donegal, Ireland, in 1952 and has also lived in the U.K. and Germany among several places. His narrative poetry for me offers a good deal of Irish insight and humour, though his range is quite expansive. I’ve selected a few offerings to share with the hope that readers of fine poetry will seek out more of his work if they presently haven’t ...


He woke up speaking Russian.
He lay there, amazed,
as sentence after sentence emerged
and sailed to the window –
it was verse, it had to be
to flow that rhythmically,
but he hadn’t written it,
nor had he been to Russia.

His wife came in from church
to find pages of Cyrillic
on the bed, and her man
on the telephone, in Russian.
He was arguing, she knew that,
though about what?
When had he been to night class?
Was it him here at all?

She remembered the tapes
and his never-right French,
or that time in Prague
at the tram terminus
grasping for a phrase of Czech.
He had to be seriously sick
or possessed. In the pauses
she heard the answering Russian
faintly, a world away.

© Matthew Sweeney

The poet often reminds me of Billy Collins and is able to take seemingly absurd tales and make them believable. Perhaps the fact that Sweeney is also a children’s book author aids in the depth of imagination which he possesses and conveys in his verses.

Here are a pair of poems showing what Sweeney can do when touching on the topic of death:


Ghost Story

I will break into a tomb
in Highgate cemetery,
one that hasn’t been opened
for a hundred years.
The bones in there won’t mind.
I’ll light a candle
and set up my camp bed,
then I’ll read ghost stories
till the bones rattle
and come together
to form a skeleton.
I’ll watch flesh form
on that skull again,
then the chest, the legs,
until a smiling old man
dressed in tweeds
sits down beside me
and asks me to read on.

© Matthew Sweeney

An End

I want to end up on Inishtrahull,
in the small graveyard there
on the high side of the island,
carried there on a helicopter sling
with twenty speedboats following.
And I want my favourite Thai chef
flown there, a day before,
and brought to the local fishermen
so he can serve a chili feast
before we head off up the hill.
A bar, too, it goes without saying,
free to all, the beer icy,
the whiskey Irish, and loud
through speakers high on poles
the gruff voice of Tom Waits
causing the gulls to congregate.
Get Tom himself there if you can.
And in the box with me I want
a hipflask filled with Black Bush,
a pen and a blank notebook,
all the vitamins in one bottle,
my addressbook and ten pound coins.
Also, a Mandarin primer.
I want no flowers, only cacti
and my headstone must be glass.

© Matthew Sweeney

Articulate and accessible, Sweeney crafts one marvellous tale after another in his work, his economy of words inviting and the visions he creates in the reader’s mind vibrant, stirring, sometimes disturbing but always fresh and unique.


The Tunnel

When they opened the manhole
on the street outside our house
I wanted to climb into it.
I could hear the rats calling.
I could hear the smugglers
manhandling kegs of ale.
I could hear the engine
of a midget U-boat
making inroads from the sea,
and behind it, whispered German,
what these bored submariners
were saying they’d do.
I knew the tunnel went on
down the length of Ireland
and I could row for weeks
in my homemade dingy
before I’d hit the southern coast,
with my strapped-on torch
getting weaker, my water
and sardines running out,
but already I could see
the walls lightening, hear gulls
at the tunnel’s end, then the strange
accents of Cork fishermen
who stood and watched me emerge.

© Matthew Sweeney

Poems taken from A Picnic on Ice: Selected Poems (2002, Signal Editions)

-- Andreas Gripp


  1. this Irish dude's properly twisted - like his stuff - wonder if we shared a tab at one of the 70s UK festivals? - tripped with a lot of heads at the first Glastonbury fest - crashed with one Irish boyo in his parents' crofter in an Irish backwater - Scarrif? - reading his stuff makes me want to get even higher

  2. you've a wealth of amazing stories, Chris. thanks for checking in. cheers.