Poetry born of the bitterest experience, The Book of Demons is announced with a tough and darkly challenging note: “Barry MacSweeney wrote his first poem at the age of seven — 42 years ago — and has heen an alcoholic since he was 16. Two years ago his solitary hard drinking almost killed him, and after a series of life-threatening fits and convulsions which ended with him on a life-support machine, he underwent rehabilitation through detoxification in several hospitals and in an addiction clinic. He has now recovered.’
Now read on. This is most uncomfortable information. MacSweeney’s book declares itself frankly as writing in a confessional mode, and this is never easy to approach; when the writing I and the speaking ‘I’ are as nearly congruent as here, when the biographical crisis is displayed with such visceral energy as here, the reading experience can be embarrassed and nervous, and attention is inevitably drawn to the means the poet has used to socialise and expand the intimately private. Rather than the Freudian Holocaust fantasies of Sylvia Plath, for instance, or the psychopathology of Anne Sexton, MacSweeney filters his personal pain through literate and literary references — for both Plath and Sexton are present in this sequence, points of contrast as much as figures of allegiance.
And there is a logic to these visions — not the logic of formal coherence or of thematic development, but essentially the logic of sound. The Book of Demons must be one of the most intensely sound-driven of recent poetry books. Syllables easily and appallingly contort and distort into new forms — omit will give way to vomit, historical to hysterical, ploughboys become playboys, and Bar (Barry) himself turns to barbed wire (grin and bear it). Confronting a line like “Daddy, you personally placed the sin in syntax” in a lesser or more conventional work, one might be apt to find fault: ‘the poet at times cannot resist the pull of sound, will always follow a quibble, and the results are sometimes opportunistic.’ But the patterns of syllabic dissolution and resolution can be read as the essential dynamic in this book.
The volume begins with a sequenee entitled ‘Pearl”, already published by a smaller press in 1995. A strikingly beautiful movement of love poems, ‘Pearl’ portrays the young poet’s feelings for a mute girl whom he taught to read. The pointed resonances of the great middle English poem Perle work well, for the alliterative revival is an apt attachment for MacSweeney’s gnarled clusters of consonants. Pearl’s troubled relationship with language is powerfully evoked. MacSweeney moves the point of utterance fluidly back and forth between ‘Barry’ and Pearl, forming a duet of poet and mute, each adoring the other’s sounds and silences:
Surge, surge, I feel today, in the law drizzle, after
tugging my Bar, but my tongue won’t move.
I am just a strange beak, purring with my fruit.
Open my mouth and water fountains down.
I am responsibie for the pool on the path.
She had the most amazing eyes in history.
The affirmation of Pearl’s emotional eloquence even in the thick of her choked speechlessness is sometimes quite breathtaking:
In fragrant marigold heaven
then I am not so fierce, so tongue-blind, dreaming,
of telling dales tales to who will listen,
hands in the borage, toes in the watermint.
The last word in ‘Pearl’ is ‘Stars!’ (a whole line); a poem from the second phase of the book also ends, in mediaeval form, with ‘starres’. I wonder whether the poet has in mind this word’s (stelle) position at the very end of each part of Dante’s Divine Comedy — the gradual progress of the pilgrim soul, illumination felt through hell, words through silence, love through death…
And then the demons. The two phases of the volume co-operate well. ‘The Book of Demons’ proper has an amplitude of line and diction, a plenitude of horror. This is not a sinister minimalist horror of cryptic cuts and thrusts but an extravagant and wide howling with lots to say, with only things to say, and therefore endlessly vociferous, so that a yearning is felt back into the pre-linguistic silence from which Pearl fought so hard to emerge. The pain of both language strangled and language unleashed are felt in abundance. The demons are old as well as new, mythic as well as personal — the poet is visited by sensations of the Holocaust, the Stasi secret police, the violence of Northern Ireland, and the childhood beatings occasioned by his first forays into verse. Try this as an evocation of the DTs:
I was not there to hold his hand when he died for
freedom and he was not in bedroom 4 to hold mine
when very funny vermilion lines slide viper-like
up the wall escaping the ant-gangs gathering to
plan a throat-choke raid on me at 4.50am.
From the hospital bed Bar makes occasional fugue-like visits to the darkened pastoral landscape where Pearl still resides. Even in the final tirade which seeks to capture a sense of regeneration in the heroes of English revolution — Cromwell, Milton, Blake, the Chartists —- the force of love and friendship is strongly felt, and these are the ‘starres’ which finally navigate the poet and reader from among the demons and into the light.
An afterword: Bloodaxe books are usually handsome objects, but The Book of Demons is exceptionally well decorated with a wonderfully green painting by Rachel Levitas.
Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw