Moths, frogs and crippled cats

A Picnic on Ice: Selected Poems

By Adrienne Ho

A review of A Picnic On Ice: Selected Poems by Matthew Sweeney

Published on April 1, 2002

A Picnic On Ice: Selected Poems
Matthew Sweeney

Véhicule Press
$16
paper
140pp
1-55065-163-3

My first encounter with the work of Matthew Sweeney was a poem called “Frog-Taming,” in which it is claimed that “Any fool can learn to catch a frog-/the trick is to do it blindfolded.” A Picnic on Ice, this Irish poet’s first Canadian-published book, kicks off the Signal Editions international series by bringing together over 20 years of slippery, hard-to-catch creatures – selections ranging from A Dream of Maps to new poems – that have been effortlessly scooped up, named, fed “a frog’s ideal diet,” and played “the right music/so (they) can learn hopping tricks.” I soon realized that Sweeney’s description of how to catch a frog is also a loose template for his poems, and that being blindfolded or not is less the matter at hand than what he prescribes as the real trick: “to keep it alive,/not strangle it, or squeeze it dead.”

Sweeney’s simple language and fairytale narratives create the whimsical relief for an allegorical landscape – a crippled cat chimes in from the dead to celebrate a wedding anniversary, and a monastery’s goat produces pink milk when fed fistfuls of red carnations. With predilection for the outrageous, or at least the fantastical, these poems are delivered with formal discipline that works as an antidote to, and perhaps even encourages, the suspension of disbelief. Here’s a snippet from “The Moths”:

…snow
gathers on their folded wings,
making them heavy, making some
fall to be crunched under boots,
or eaten by a passing dog.
while behind them, more walk stiffly
following the dead ones home.

Home for the moths is a streetlamp’s filament, and the journey is one they make nightly. So, why moths? Why not, say, flies or mosquitoes? In “The Hat,” the green hat on a man with green eyes who is wearing a suit (also green) bears the weight of the Shakespearean-coined “green-eyed monster” of jealousy, the hat man just having been made a cuckold. Moths work because not only are they phototactic, but also their automatic attraction to light ultimately leads to their end. Sweeney derives meaning from the emblematic – the thing, rather than any comparison to the thing. What seems to be a deliberate lack of conventional similes and metaphors no doubt enables the tale to be told, and leaves it to its own devices.

A Picnic on Ice has a number of regular walk-ons – the sea, sheep, and people on the brink of hanging themselves. While these are perhaps accurate in depicting the life of the coast of Ireland, I became all too familiar with their repeated appearances. Maybe it’s an Irish thing – somewhat along the lines of Eavan Boland’s love affair with the emblematic Irish lace that permeates her earlier books to the extent that there’s scarcely a poem without a mention of it. Or like Seamus Heaney’s recurrent spades and bogs.

Two cavils: Sweeney uses from time to time a last-line, drive-it-home punch that seems, in context (“Biscuit Men” and “The House”) unnecessary. Occasionally, too, he slips into a kind of hyper-allegory – a shoelace in a field with severed penis, a glass headstone (?) – that borders on the cryptic.

These aside, the delight of reading A Picnic on Ice comes from the poem’s apparent frivolity, their matter-of-fact addressing of what we love, don’t know, and fear. mRb

Adrienne Ho's poetry chapbook Murmurs was published by Junction Books in 2001.

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