A Picnic On Ice: Selected Poems
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”:
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