Stephen Sexton – Oils

Full Disclosure: Was recommended this pamphlet by Stephen Connolly, colleague of Sexton’s at Queen’s University; have not met Sexton. Review copy provided by Emma Press, along with Best Friends Forever: Poems on Female Friendship and Captain Love and the Five Joaquins by John Clegg.

Review: Preamble: This pamphlet has its own introduction, which is unusual. It’s a bit like a built-in Guardian review, complete with ‘These are poems to read and reread. This is a poet to get excited about’. Happily, it’s more or less accurate! Go figure.

If it wasn’t for Frances Leviston’s Disinformation last month, it would’ve been a long time since I’d read poems that rewarded both a careful and painstaking unspooling of thought and a quick skim over a brilliant surface. Sexton here uses an apparently straightforward (nay, breezy) narrative register to cover for a deep investigation into the nature of life, death and our ability to perceive their intermingling. Alongside the explicit references to Peter Doig and Anne Sexton, there seems to be a kinship with Don Paterson and Sinéad Morrissey, sharing those poets’ ability to communicate darkness lightly, at an enlightening angle. While these poets’ work appears to have been an empowering force in Sexton’s work, the book is absolutely its own unique, strange, but approachable creature. As an aside, its brevity only affords its short lyrics a kind of intensified significance; there is plenty of evidence here to support considering the pamphlet a complete collection in its own right. It’s difficult to imagine Oils being more powerful as a 50-plus-page book.

Oils’ centrepiece is ‘The Deaths of Orpheus’, a three-part poem on the post-mortem passage of the myth, each section written in light of a painting, namely: ‘Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on His Lyre’, ‘Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus’ and ‘The Death of Orpheus’. Google em. Sexton seems unafraid to engage in such traditionally poemy pursuits, and makes hay out of negotiating their generic conventions; the voice of Orpheus talks about getting ‘out of that wine / fucking dark sea’, and when the narrator asserts the power of his lyre: ‘And – I should settle this – three strings, / though I could have made you weep with one’, he brings to mind Michael Donaghy’s nervous, bombastic, self-deprecating personae. If your cup of earl grey is intricate syntactical weaving, ‘Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus’ is pure, artisan, be-fucking-spoke loose leaf. 24 lines in a sentence, it runs a gamut of mythical stock phrase:

‘Always becoming, always becoming, instar
to instar, the salmon-pink sky runs
a jealous parallel along the mountaintops,
the mountaintops envy the scum of the sky’

taking in a submerged pun on ‘instar’ (which google tells me is ‘a developmental stage of insects’) to put this reader in mind of ‘instep’ and ‘star’, which comes back in that twilight sky, the tender part of the foot, and the insects apostrophised in the closing line. The poem runs through elements from its source painting – ‘waterlilies and peonies / and aconite’, ‘this fresh pool’, ‘its algal / green flotage’ – in the mere fact of their vegetable life considered more powerful, more real, than the floating head of Orpheus delivering the poem, whose appearance is deferred (as it is in the painting) to the foot of the piece:

‘me half-drowned at the bottom and jealous,
O insects, jealous is what death is.’

The conjunction of the line’s pause for breath and the cumulative rhetorical force of the ‘instar’ insects is something special. The poem builds its vivaciousness through its unrelenting syntax (like MacNeice’s ‘Mayfly’), and positions death at its crucial point; the slightly absurd conceit of the dismembered and bitter poet is a perfect undercurrent against the high register and frantic changes of focus.

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A similarly complex weaving is ‘Long Reach’, the poet’s rendering of his namesake Anne Sexton’s rendering of ‘The Starry Night’ by Van Gogh. The poem’s framing is, again, a well-earned and delicately handled necessity: the poem puts the lives of both Sextons through the wringer through the single appearance of Van Gogh, who contends: “Sometimes, young woman, / it’s both expensive and impossible to change.”’ The painter’s patronage to his addressee, who is partly Anne struggling to keep going in a socially asphyxiating small town, plays against our knowledge of both artists’ suicides and the narrator’s desire to make (or restore) a life in a semi-fictional ideal place: ‘the long reach / back into the small French town where we could live.’ The poem’s doomed request, ‘Live, then show me what I got wrong’ is heartbreaking, the conflict between the sestina’s fatalistic repetition of end-words and the variousness in between a reflection of the tension at the poem’s core. The question implicit here – what was the connection between these artists’ lives and their deaths? Might it have been otherwise? – is kindly and gently delivered, and offers no easy redress.

The collection features several such thumbnail nightmares, explicitly or implicitly haunted. Another beautiful set piece is ‘The Death of Horses’ (Sexton is also unafraid of putting the subject matter front and centre, all the better to look it in the eye). Here, the dead animal – usually in contemporary poetry a sort of fetish for the luxuriating poet to prove their (his) unflinchingness – is itself an empowered, terrifying agent, between the lands of the living and the dead:

‘The bones of the horses keep arranged

largely in their living shape. A rib
or thighbone missing here, carrion
clumped around a hoof as though death
was elsewhere overthrown: a skeleton

growing back its flesh – the pastern,
gaskin, stifle, loin.’

That last list. Jings. The poem comes to rest, without prior warning, in the home of a farmer trying to calm ‘his son’s shivering bones’, that key word drawing together the boy and his fears. The poem’s close – ‘The river curses TV static. / It’s too dark and not dark enough.’ – leaves the piece not in an extravagant posture of man-versus-death, but a far quieter, sadder acknowledgement of the power of fear. As Sexton notes, ‘the mind haunts itself’; knowledge of our mortality is no stay against it, and (noting Donaghy’s recurring connection between white noise and messages from the beyond) the poem’s only consolation is giving voice and body to those fears, permitting their explicit transmission.

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There is simply too much imaginative life in Oils, however, too much embodied belief in the possibilities of the work to be overwhelmed by what seems a kind of motivational anxiety. ‘Subimago’ (‘I have been well prepared for small endings. / At eight years old, my first poem killed a mayfly.’) and ‘Elegy for Olive Oyl’ (‘I bears this image in mind’) have a vividness, a bold weirdness that is rare and heartening. Most of all, Oils has a winning sincerity, perhaps ‘faithfulness’ is a better word, that even in the face of the often cruel and arbitrary worlds of its poems, there is usually something wonderful and strange.

Tl;dr: Oils is a fantastic collection and (as is vital with pamphlets/chapbooks) Emma Press have done a great job in the production of the physical thing. At £6.50 I can’t recommend it enough.

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