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PETIT MAL: a review by
Jennifer Matthews was born in Columbia, Missouri in the USA. After studying for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria she moved to Cork, Ireland in 2003 and continues to live there now. Aside from reviews, she also writes poetry and has been published in Mslexia, Revival and Poetry Salzburg, and has read her work at the New Writers Showcase in the Heaventree Poetry Festival in Coventry, UK. In 2010 she was anthologised in Dedalus's 2010 collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places.
John W. Sexton
(Revival Press, 2009)
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“I like to write beautiful poems about things that aren’t beautiful, because things that aren’t beautiful are often ignored,” said John W. Sexton at a reading for O’Bheal in Cork. He was introducing a poem about excrement, ‘The Enchanted Cowpat,’ which in itself represents why his poetry appeals. It is irreverent and mysterious, and its humour makes a disarming nod to the deeper subtext. “With his foot he breaks a crusted cowcake/ carries the secret over the moonlit meadow...” With introductory lines like that, you are compelled to read on.
Often there is a shamanic feel to his work. The poems read as puzzles, incantations, warnings, invocations. ‘Hymn’ and ‘Invocation of Intercession to the Earthly Angels’ are quite soulful. They reclaim the structure of prayer for more pagan figures of worship (or at least, of reverence). In the modern need to address environmental issues, this is an effective way to draw a reader’s attention to the world around them:
magpie over the darkened river pray for them
fox hidden in the reeds pray for them
crow finding the shape of the wind pray for them
snail in your tunnel of self pray for them
The poems aren’t strictly environmental in their message. Death, and the cycle of life, is a major preoccupation of the collection, as you’d imagine with a title like Petit Mal. ‘Fox’ gives voice to an animal which is indiscriminate in taking lives, seemingly unstoppable. “I am copper that knows no verdigris. / I steal the newborn from the throes of birth, /I am the farmer’s springtime misery.” Colour is a favourite tool of the author, and the image of a bold ‘copper’ conquering the green we associate with renewable, eternal life, is sharp one.
Form is clearly important to Sexton, and the variety within the collection makes the read more enjoyable. He is known for his association with the haiku, and a couple of the poems in Petit Mal are influenced by Asian forms and philosophies. ‘A Japanese Airman Says Goodbye to the War’, for example, breaks free from traditional form, but retains a strategic approach to metre and a contemplative tone. Lots of Petit Mal’s poems play with formal approach, which is commendable, but not always clear in their desired effect. ‘Thief of Dreams’, for example, has two stanzas: the first with short, intense lines and the second a narrative, prose poem with long lines. Although both are dreams of the narrator, other connections between them were unclear to me, as was the reason for the change in line length. Similarly, I was confused by ‘Rhyme for the Inside of Cupboards’. It contains four stanzas—the first and the third being exactly the same words/lines, as are the second and fourth. The reader doesn’t feel a slow, spiralling revelation as found in sestinas, nor do they get the meditative rhythm of a refrain. It feels like a short poem which is simply doubled. In contrast to these is the utter success of ‘Seven Eyes Nine Eyes Twelve’, a fine poem as the result of the mystery and controlled, but dynamic, formal execution:
Lamprey mouth their language of scars
Seven eyes nine eyes twelve
Tissued flesh their face of knives
Seven eyes nine eyes twelve....
What has remained with me after reading Petit Mal are Sexton’s poems about the dangerous business of being a child. In contrast with the twee nostalgia that runs throughout a lot of childhood poetry, this writer confronts harsh truths. The adult world can be very callous to the vulnerability of children. ‘As My Mother Casts Cities Asunder’ and ‘Night’ are two poems I wish I could quote in their entirety here. Both have vivid, intense images, carefully fed to the reader so that a slow chill builds in each revelation. In ‘Night’, “Earwigs unbed themselves/ from the tight petals of a rose./ Flies enter the purple vaginas/ of the digitalis...”. The tone is dramatic but restrained enough to treat their subjects with respect, and importantly the reader is trusted to discover the trouble between the lines. The virtues of these poems were also lauded in ‘The Green Owl’, winner of the 2007 Listowel Poetry Prize. Sexton at his best, it is a piece that combines an ‘important topic’ with writing that doesn’t sacrifice artistry for message. “Outside in the dark an owl says who/ With half its face bright in the tall sky/ the moon’s face is half black like mammy’s/ Night by night she’s been watching the moon bruising in the tall sky.” All in all, a dark, enjoyable read.
©2010 Jennifer Matthews
Interviews with various poets through Ó Bhéal
Matthews poems on Poetry International Web
Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)