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Review: Jacob Polley and Matthew Sweeney

Launching the 2015 Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA) series of readings, I was asked to deliver a First Thursday lunchtime reading with fellow PhD candidate Kris Johnson. We were warmly introduced by Tara Bergin and read a selection of our poems, framed by our research.

The celebration of poetry continued into the evening with readings from Jacob Polley and Matthew Sweeney. Introduced by Sean O'Brien, Polley is a 2004 Next Generation Poet and a new Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Something near to five years ago, I caught Phil Jupitus reading a poem as part of a BBC poetry season. 'A Jar of Honey' strikes the most lucid image of its subject, whilst seeing it at such a distance to render it surreal. This method of seeing the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary is akin to deft Anglo-Saxon riddles. Hear the poem here and you will never again see or hold a jar of honey without thinking of it as "a pound of light." 

With more poems to gild the everyday, Polley read from his new Poetry Book Society recommended collection, The Havocs (Picador Press). As in his first collection The Brink, these are poems perched on the periphery in their ability to disquiet the familiar and loosen the stable. This extract is from 'Potsherds', a sherd being a fragment of ancient pottery, glass or stone, a kind of evidence:

           in suspensions  of brine and animal fat

only those parts  of the world whose keeping required of us an art

Polley, it seems, looks for the phenomenal in the most ordinary of things, which unfold in his poems as a form of litany. Similarly, O'Brien described Matthew Sweeney as a poet of obsession and ritual. Sweeney is a new discovery for me as a reader or rather, this being my first listening, hearer. A deadly serious poet, he is playful with language and his Irish wit is unmissable. 

Reading from Horse Music (Bloodaxe, 2013),Sweeney told us of an old school friend, a man from Donegal who cuts his hair in exchange for his latest book of poems, He said you're a poet, you must have long hair! Imagining Sweeney's ten collections and ten counterpart haircuts, I smiled as he launched into 'The Glass Chess Set' a poem that asks:

Who was his invisible opponent?...

Well, he remembered winning once

It is a great talent to shift audiences from laughing aloud to silent reflection and Sweeney does so with ease, steering us from jovial anecdotes to jaw dropping lines of verse. Woven together through his off-centre imagination, he makes all the possibilities of poetic landscapes possible, as in this extract from 'A History of Glassblowing':

            in Cologne, in 1531, a team

of glassblowers blew an orchestra,  instruments and all, and these played.

This spectral image speaks several kinds of volume and like Polley, makes an uncanny visioning that is assertive of both its own reality and unreality. With these ways of seeing in mind, I am excited to read more of Polley's The Havocs and to explore Sweeney's new Inquisition Lane. Eagerly anticipating talks and readings ahead from Rita Dove, Marilyn Hacker and the Bloodaxe International Poets (to name but a few) I welcome another year of NCLA events.



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