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

Monday, 13 January 2014

Cull of the Wild


What the Badger Said by Tom Cull
Baseline Press, 2013   ISBN 978-0-9880819-6-3
Poetry London Workshop Facilitator and Western University Professor Tom Cull makes his chapbook debut with What the Badger Said, and, much like his effervescent personality, Cull’s poems are ripe with wit and playful mirth. That’s not to imply that this poet doesn’t have something serious to say – like on death, for instance, in Tractor, where Cull turns a funeral upside down, imploring mourners not to mourn but to celebrate life in a gluttonous gathering and to dance as the deceased’s ashes are shot over a river by a potato gun.
In Spring Brood, a familiar father-son dynamic emerges – bird-doting son juxtaposed with gun-toting dad hell-bent on ridding his property of the “pests.” Cull is capable, in a way few poets are, of taking what one would expect to be sombre, depressing material and giving it balance through authentic dialogue and a believable internal thought process that’s revealed and which lightens the mood without sacrificing the piece’s content. The reader is also left much more informed about specific kinds of birds, all the while being blessed with the spectrum of emotions that the author is able to instill. And as for his descripts, Cull can convey them in the finest fashion:
“The cowbirds and grackles are back.
Iridescent blue in the sun,
their calls blat the belligerent optimism
of a throttled reed instrument.”
This is poetry able to make a direct connection – “Auscultation: Plunder Verse” grabbed my attention right away being that I was born with a heart murmur which causes problems now and again and Cull’s definitions of words and his layout of verse in this offering kept me absorbed in the text.
A variety of animals assume all-too-human characteristics and social practices (especially as they relate to being a poet) in Choosing the Animal Laureate. It is in this piece that the answer to “what the badger said” is revealed in its brief, funny, and very direct manner. One can see both CanLit and the poetry “scene” being parodied and some creatures may appear reminiscent of bards living or otherwise: biting, philosophical, and all in good fun.
Cull, though, is fully competent in adapting a solemn tone without any humourous injection – i.e., in Show and Tell, a kind of funereal antithesis of the aforementioned Tractor, where “The child in the spotted dress / hides behind the coffin and the bruises / fade yellow.”
In “Crepuscular,” the human characters do a bit of a reversal from Choosing the Animal Laureate in that they’ve adopted animal traits – fish-like, bird-esque, and most notable and specifically, those of a beaver and then a majestic creature of the sea:
“Back in the pool, the boy
puts his small hand on the flutter board
cut in the shape of a ray.
His mother beckons,
she is thin as a rail
but has eyes on the top of her head.”
The collection closes with On the Sale of My Farm, citing lines from Robert Frost which are adroitly interspersed throughout. The result is a moulding of two voices seemingly telling one tale of loss and a forlorn habitat.
The only regret for me with regards to What the Badger Said is that the excellent illustration in the middle of the chapbook by Patrick Cull (the poet’s brother) doesn’t adorn the front cover (which would have really stood out amid the red-brick colour of the cover stock) and might have made for a more enticing exterior. Nevertheless, as with all of Baseline Press’ releases thus far, the chapbook’s beauty is more than apparent with French flaps that provide a pleasant added weight to this handcrafted volume and a classy, beautiful flyleaf that further exhibits publisher Karen Schindler’s exquisite taste.
Do not miss an opportunity to hear Tom Cull present these and other poems to a live audience – you’ll laugh, ponder, and remain engaged throughout the experience as you will in the reading of this distinguished, debut collection of verse.
For book ordering information, please visit
– Andreas Gripp



Some Poems by Elizabeth Jennings

“I’m not quiet and restrained. Perhaps after all one’s poems do represent what one would like to be or become – hence my search for peace and reconciliation.”

 – Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings is an often overlooked poet, at least around these parts. Perhaps the fact that English poets of Britain, aside from the most famous, are sometimes lost due to the flood of study on Canadian counterparts plays a part in our under-appreciation of them.  Jennings (1926-2001) was a prolific crafter of language who balanced her technical skill with accessible lines and subjects. Among her many, extraordinary offerings, I’ve chosen these three to spotlight in order to hopefully contribute to keeping her at the forefront of any discussions on who are among the greatest English-language poets in history.



Let it disturb no more at first
Than the hint of a pool predicted far in a forest,
Or a sea so far away that you have to open
Your window to hear it.
Think of it then as elemental, as being
Not for a cup to be taken to it and not
For lips to linger or eye to receive itself
Back in reflection, simply
As water the patient moon persuades and stirs.

And then step closer,
Imagine rivers you might indeed embark on,
Waterfalls where you could
Silence an afternoon by staring but never
See the same tumult twice.
Yes come out of the narrow street and enter
The full piazza. Come where the noise compels.
Statues are bowing down to the breaking air.

Observe it there – the fountain, too fast for shadows,
Too wild for the lights which illuminate it to hold,
Even a moment, an ounce of water back;
Stare at such prodigality and consider
It is the elegance here, it is the taming,
The keeping fast in a thousand flowering sprays,
That builds this energy up but lets the watchers
See in that stress an image of utter calm,
A stillness, there. It is how we must have felt
Once at the edge of some perpetual stream,
Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all,
Panicked by no perception of ourselves
But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.

Jennings sees things in objects that we miss, creates a sense of the divine in what we perceive to be merely natural or human.

Greek Statues

These I have never touched but only looked at.
If you could say that stillness meant surrender
These are surrendered.
Yet their large audacious gestures signify surely
Remonstrance, reprisal? What have they left to lose
But the crumbling away by rain or time? Defiance
For them is a dignity, a declaration.

Odd how one wants to touch not simply stare,
To run one’s fingers over the flanks and arms,
Not to possess, rather to be possessed.
Bronze is bright to the eye but under the hands
Is cool and calming. Gods into silent metal:

To stone also, not to the palpable flesh.
Incarnations are elsewhere and more human,
Something concerning us; but these are other.
It is as if something infinite, remote
Permitted intrusion. It is as if these blind eyes
Exposed a landscape precious with grapes and olives:
And our probing hands moved not to grasp
But to praise.

Many of her poems deal with people as her primary subject, and she gives a perspective we would never have gained without her artist’s insight. And sometimes person and object meld into a unified image.


The Diamond Cutter

Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
And what particular colours it will bear.

And something of the climber’s concentration
Seeing the white peak, setting the right foot there.

Not how the sun was plausible at morning
Nor how it was distributed at noon,

And not how much the single stone could show
But rather how much brilliance it would shun;

Simply a paring down, a cleaving to
One object, as the star-gazer who sees

One single comet polished by its fall
Rather than countless, untouched galaxies.


All poems © Elizabeth Jennings

Selections taken from Penguin Modern Poets I (featuring Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R.S. Thomas, published by Penguin Books, 1962). Jennings’ poems from this anthology originally appeared in her books A Way of Looking (1956, André Deutsch), A Sense of the World (1958, André Deutsch), and Song For a Birth or a Death (1961, André Deutsch).

For more information on Elizabeth Jenning’s life and her works, please visit


– Andreas Gripp

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Sea Level Well Above Ground

Sea Level, by Cornelia Hoogland
Baseline Press, London, Ontario
ISBN 978-0-9880819-7-0

Sea Level was originally a CBC Lit Award Shortlisted work of nonfiction. Former London, Ontario now Hornby Island, B.C. poet and playwright Cornelia Hoogland has seamlessly transformed the manuscript into a long poem, dropping its reader into the thick of Bella Bella, British Columbia, accompanied by tour guide Howard Humchitt of the Heiltsuk First Nation and his expertise.

Comparable to previous volumes of her poetry, Hoogland spotlights a single animal, the gray wolf in this instance, but also broadens the experience with salmon, whales, and squid, and both the reader’s zoological knowledge and a greater appreciation for poetic skill inevitably increase in the process.

One of Sea Level’s best moments involves interaction with lichen and trees:

“The witches beard (Usnea lichen)  
draped over spruce branches  
acts like a dimmer switch. It’s so quiet  
we think we hear the sound
Douglas-firs standing together  

Hoogland has long-mastered the art of concise, descriptive narrative. There is the Zen-like manner of conveying the natural setting without bogging it down with perceptions and then the ease she uses to move the story along with her panoramic vignettes told ever succinctly. When you read each untitled episode of this flowing long poem, the author, through the use of familiar, personal language, ensures that the reader will feel she or he is a part of its drama and is one of the visitors accompanying Howard Humchitt along his revelation of this coastal British Columbia landscape (though Hoogland cleverly remarks that “This is not landscape, it is not outside us. / We are in it.”).

Hoogland, as usual, doesn’t overdo images in order to impress but uses them when needed to make a passage extremely memorable:

“We look for animal tracks in the mud.
Our rubber boot prints are everywhere.
Somebody puts his foot on the body of a dead fish.
He presses down. Flame-red roe gushes
onto black rock. Spill of jewels.”

Published by London, Ontario’s Baseline Press and lovingly put together by its publisher/editor, Karen Schindler, Sea Level, as a hand-sewn chapbook complete with a cover illustration by Howard Humchitt and a Thai Mango flyleaf, is yet another stunning edition to this ever-growing press’ line of incredibly beautiful volumes of verse.  You’ll love the feel of it in your hands and the poems within for a good long while.

For more information and to order, please visit:

– Andreas Gripp