Woodsong, Tristram Fane Saunders
Smith/Doorstop, 2019 £5.00
Playing with echoes
No poem is an island entire of itself. If that sentence brings a sharp twinge of recognition (whatever form that might take), you’ll be receptive to Tristram Fane Saunders’ layers of word-play in this Sweeney-themed pamphlet. I could call parts of it ‘pastiche’ but that’s too narrow a description: pastiche doesn’t cover the pitch-perfect ear for re-invention of poets from the twelve-century onwards. It doesn’t cover the sheer wicked fun of it.
The Afterword tells us ‘Myths are slippery things’, and Sweeney has been slipping through poets’ imaginings since his first appearance in the epic Buile Suibhne.The Dramatis Personae helps, with its earnest sketch of Ronan (‘Honest cleric’) and Sweeney (‘Honest Ulsterman’), each with his own obsessive version of the tale.
How devious words can be, and not just in the narrative. The character of ‘Tom’, for example, has attributes that include ‘Four-piece suit’ and the description ‘Poor poor Tom’. These are little echoes from future literature, half-noticed — though a glance at the list of ‘Borrowed Lines’ points the reader to Virginia Woolf’s letter describing T S Eliot, and to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Eliot used Sweeney as a protagonist; Seamus Heaney made his own translation of the epic (Sweeney Astray) in 1983, and followed it in 1984 with the ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ poems in Station Island. Flann O’Brien couldn’t resist slipping it into At Swim-Two-Birds. There’s a distinguished history of playing with the lusts and failings entrenched in this ancient epic.
This pamphlet sings, asking to be read aloud. Perhaps it’s enough to quote from just one poem, ‘Sweeney Conjunctivitic’:
Restive inside its amber brick,
the ancient worm begins to twitch.
Sweeney regards Odette through thick
gold-tinted spectacles. They itch.
Luciferous, skin cold and wan,
she mimes the gesture meaning fire.
Sweeney draws two, strikes up a Swan,
lights hers — for where there’s smoke, desire.
Ah, a sneaky reference to Proust! It’s hard to put this pamphlet down, letting the echoes speak. Or, to put it another way, it’s crept between my dry ribs. It’s keeping my metaphysics cosy.
D A Prince