Fancydancer was a three-time champion of the Irish National who, in its retirement, galloped past a lighthouse and into the sea. While at its peak, a rival stable lamed it in the night. But perhaps victory was not its true destiny. In ‘The Photos on the Wall’, Matthew Sweeney says:
I say the photos on the wall tell it all –
those races were practice for this final gallop,
this last captured splash into the sea.
The double ‘ll’ of three of the last four words in this sentence’s opening line group together like fences before a ditch. The bustle of the splash is like a horse landing with a bump on the turf.
Fancydancer is mentioned again in a later poem, ‘The Naming of Horses’, alongside Kauto Star and Barbers Shop, so readers can safely assume it was a real horse, which leads to the assumption that this story of Fancydancer is genuine too. Retellings of true stories add depth to a poem. Some readers may argue that the poet is relying on someone else’s material, or is describing an event which any writer could describe, but true events such as the one in ‘The Photos on the Wall’ are worth keeping alive, and this tradition does not solely entail repetition of the facts. Made-up stories may show originality in one sense, but it is more of a challenge, and reward, to spread on a new layer to a real event than to a tale just conjured up with no substance and no real consequence. And this is where the skill of the poet comes into force, and here Matthew Sweeney excels, particularly as the poem reaches its climax. The final three and a bit lines of this poem, in particular, are emotive and magnificent.
Other equine poems include ‘Horse Music’, the title poem, featuring horses rumoured to be fluent in Irish. This poem was likely inspired by the collection’s cover painting, The Singing Horseman, painted by the brother of W.B. Yeats.
Matthew Sweeney was born in Lifford, Co. Donegal, Ireland. He studied at the Polytechnic of North London and the University of Freiburg. After living in Berlin and Timisoara for some years, he returned to Ireland and now lives in Cork. Some of the poems in Horse Music are set in Germany. A lot are set in Ireland, but all avoid the clichéd subject matter associated with this country.
Sweeney’s poems have always had a comical nuttiness to them. When this quirkiness doesn’t work, these poems can be tiresome. But the award-winning Sweeney, who has also written poetry and novels for children, has proved through ten collections of poetry that eccentricity can sometimes produce exceptionally magical imagery.
The technique of using photographs displayed on a wall to tell a story is revisited in ‘A Pig in God’s Ear’, a poem set in a Parisian restaurant. This time it is quotes and sculptures rather than photographs and there is no story in the traditional sense. St Augustine, female superiority and Les Halles market, complete with traders arriving by train at Rue Balthand at one in the morning, all ensure that not only does the recycling of ‘The Photos on the Wall’s’ axis go unnoticed but also that the combination of weirdness and ordinariness works a treat.
Elsewhere, oddness is, as usual for a Matthew Sweeney collection, at the forefront of the majority of the poems. For new readers these poems will largely be armed with a surprising element, both original and extremely refreshing. For veteran readers of Sweeney’s poetry, large chunks of Horse Music wont seem much different, or as strong as, the author’s previous work. But when Sweeney’s goldmine of strangeness and joy are dug up swiftly to the surface, is there a poet more uniquely beguiling?
Strangeness is tame in ‘The Lost Gold Medal’, but imagination is still the key:
Munich Olympics 1972: there should have been
an Irish gold medal to go with Ronnie’s
from Melbourne in 1956, my birth-year, give
or take four. The sport? Push-penny, or
push-halfpenny, as it had to be then, with a
2p banging a ½ p on a draughtsman’s board,
the coins pinged by steel combs towards goals
Ron Delany, coached by Track and Field Hall-of-Famer Jumbo Elliot, won gold in the Men’s 1500m event in the 1956 Summer Olympics. Sweeney was born in 1952. In the 1952 Summer Olympics, Ireland only managed silver (the silver was earned in Boxing, an event which Ireland excelled at, especially in the ’56 Summer Olympics). Sweeney exaggerates his birth-year greatly to feel more involved in his country’s success. Sweeney the student is dedicated to his sport and is desperately aware of the lack of gold since Ron Delany’s triumph (Ireland’s next gold was won in 1992 in Barcelona, in Boxing). No Irish athlete won a medal in the 1972 Summer Olympics. At university in 1971, not long after L’Escargot’s second Gold Cup (again evidence that the student connects sport triumphs with national pride), the once private battles of push-penny became ‘university-wide’:
with entries coming in from Classics, English, Law,
you name it, all of them plonkers, using plastic
combs, credit cards, nailfiles, sawnoff rulers…
They entered like non-league clubs in the FA Cup
and unlike those, none of them prospered.
The message of Irish identity is only lightly played out. More important for Sweeney is the sense of fun as he takes the piss out of his own pretentiousness.
Add the odd villanelle, ballad and elegy to an orange-haired dwarf, a farting monkey and a lecture on how to regain your manhood (in the genital sense), and you get a good sense of how Sweeney’s love of poetry combines with his love for family and friends, his bizarre sense of humour and his love of the peculiar, to articulate a coherent, if sometimes repetitive in adventurous spirit, story-telling collection.
Too many poems in Horse Music are overly colourful and forgettable, but with one poem in particular, the scintillating and breathtaking ‘A History of Glassblowing’, Matthew Sweeney has proved that ambition, mixed with experience, will always count:
…And in Cologne, in 1531, a team
of glassblowers blew an orchestra,
instruments and all, and these played.