REVIEW: Matthew Sweeney, Twentyone Men and a Ghost

smith|doorstop, 29pp, £5

This review was originally published in Antiphon Issue 14

When I read Matthew Sweeney’s Twentyone Men and a Ghost, I understood his own comment, ‘The Men poems took me by surprise’. Although each man has characteristics which might seem familiar, aspects of a person we can recollect from experience in daily life, Sweeney’s men taken together are a menagerie, an image which is enhanced by the animals both familiar and exotic, which swarm through the book to an equally varied backdrop of music, taking in banjos, reggae and classical composers.

There is a strong narrative to each of the poems, none of which is over thirty lines long. Despite their length though, the poems expose the lives of each man vividly focussing in an almost factual way on basic needs of food and drink but also on the idiosyncrasies of each character. Each poem starts with a statement, perhaps a defining characteristic about the man concerned, ‘The fat man eats pork pies baked by / his Yorkshire chef,’; ‘The ancient man plays chess with himself / in the Clock Tower.’; ‘The good man killed a fly once / and didn’t eat for a week.’ Many of the poems continue a narrative similar to ‘a day in the life of’: ‘The lift he had installed brings him down / to the lilac kitchen for an 11am espresso.’ (‘The Ancient Man’); ‘At six every evening, he opens a claret, pours / himself a glass, puts on a CD of Lester Young,’ (‘The Big Man’).

When drawn into the lives of the individuals, the reader steps into a variety of worlds, each with its own logic, and driven by a sense of purpose which, from inside each poem, seems reasonable.

The first poem, ‘The Twins’, establishes this transfer; to the outward eye, even to their parents, the twins appear to be identical, but their private lives are very different, alerting us to the theme of the inner world we discover in the other men. In this inner world, each man can be happy, or at least build a world in which they can do as they please. ‘The Lame Man’, for instance, ignores his limp, dances, runs with his pet wallaby and spurns the publicity of TV and publishers; ‘The Ancient Man’ always wins at chess, playing against himself, and cheerfully greets ‘friends’, all of which are animals; ‘The Fit Man’ avoids any conflict by moving to an island where he pursues his own ideal lifestyle uninterrupted by reality.

It is when the men have to interact that problems arise. ‘The Sick Man’ daily goes to ‘... the doctor / who hates to see him sit down’, the man doesn’t want the doctor’s advice, ‘... fakes a laugh, and leaves, / swigging his rescue remedy...then takes the 27 bus to the zoo / to visit his friend, the orang-utan.’ The sense of problems with interaction is apparent when ‘The Drunk Man’ fails to be understood by the head from the window, the metal- studded punk and even by a fellow drunk.

‘The Big Man’ resolves problems with interaction by building his own private ballroom, drinks good wine and dances with Jacinda, a rag doll who ‘... doesn’t move much, / though her rope legs flail, and her string hair.’ ‘The Small Man’, on the other hand, goes to a restaurant but is set apart from other diners with everyone apparently going out of their way to give him the best and the most exotic food and wine. When all else fails and the world intrudes, the solution adopted by ‘The Daft Man’ is to shout and tell intrusive boys to go away, whilst ‘The Madman’ carries on regardless, ‘flailing his / arms, then wheels off, laughing.’

Significantly, the Man who not only copes with ‘the real world’, but positively thrives, is the one who should perhaps be most cut off from it – ‘The Blind Man’ is not only brilliant at scrabble, playing with actual opponents, but ‘No one is more on the wavelength of / children.’

The Twentyone Men can be read in two ways, each with different results. Occasionally picking up the book and visiting one of the worlds at random is an absorbing, pleasant, often surreal, experience. Reading them all together, each character entering the stage for his brief performance, despite humour within the individual poems, seems to build a more depressing view of the world, one which gives the impression of isolation and, in the end, futility, most clearly summed up in ‘The Sad Man ‘, who watches the fish who replace his dead fish ‘... enter the net, / one by one, and explore the water / in the clear blue plastic bag’. For all that though, ‘The Ghost’ of the final poem, would love to be able to live again. The fact that what he misses and would dearly love again is, ‘... playing / golf at Ballybunion, making love to his / girlfriend, cooking... pre-marinated loin of pork,’ came as a relief that after all the exotic, surreal and poignant visits to other worlds. What gives most happiness is reality, something of the everyday, and interaction. Twentyone Men and a Ghost is an absorbing and thought-provoking collection.