First published in 2003, Wolf Tongue has been re-printed by Bloodaxe, complemented by Paul Batchelor’s illuminating book of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney, also reviewed here on the DURA pages. MacSweeney, a prodigious poet, selected most of the poems for Wolf Tongue before his death in 2000. For much of his life, he was little known, having withdrawn from the mainstream poetry world after an early-career publicity stunt backfired humiliatingly.
MacSweeney’s poetry is rooted in the north-east of England but reflects on aspects of wider British politics, culture and society. He draws upon Anglo-Saxon antecedents and is strongly influenced by medieval and Romantic poets, all in a spirit often reminiscent of the Beat poets. This is complex and multi-layered poetry in which the degeneration of industrialised, capitalist Britain is paralleled by psychological dissolution and fragmentation.
MacSweeney’s poems are lyrical laments. Some of his early work might be described as experimental and sometimes feels a little self-indulgent, but at his best he is successfully bold. There is a thick seam of bitterness and melancholia running through much of his work, yet even in the pitch dark there are chinks of irony verging on humour. In the final stanza of his early poem, “On The Burning Down of the Salvation Army Men’s Palace, Dogs Bank, Newcastle”, he writes,
We looked at the scorched wood and remarked
how much it resembled a burnt body later we
heard it was charred corpse
we remarked how much it resembled burnt-out timber
By withdrawing from the mainstream poetry world at an early age, MacSweeney was perhaps free to develop his extreme, uncompromising poetry. At times, his words are deeply misogynistic but there’s always a sense in which he’s holding up a mirror to society and in particular to capitalism and consumerism. In “Liz Hard”, for example,
BREEZY FUCKLARD TITPIG, YOU WON’T
ANOTHER GLITTERING SWEATSHOP DAYLONG
HOUR AT THE BLITKRIEG
Though not autobiographical in the traditional sense, MacSweeney’s writing often seems to be about aspects of himself, expressed as much through his female personae such as Liz Hard, here depicted as a journalist, his own profession, as through the male dockers and ranters of his overtly political poetry.
The sequence I enjoyed most in Wolf Tongue was “Pearl”, in which MacSweeney projects his wounded, alcoholic self on his mute childhood friend. With its allusive title, heavy alliteration and frequent three-stressed lines, it gives more than a nod to the medieval poem “Perle”. Take “No Buses to Damascus”,
Wonder Pearl distemper pale, queen
of Blanchland who rode mare Bonny
by stooks and stiles in the land
of waving wings and borage blue
and striving storms of stalks and stems.
Pearl, who could not speak, eventually
wrote: Your family feuds are ludicrous.
This is powerful poetry which lopes, historically and geographically, always alive to the ills of contemporary society. “Wild Knitting”* opens,
Beneath the worm’s eye view people. The clubfoot
Giro trek. Brandlings lob mucus
from the sloping lawns of Albion. Securicor
I’m only glad to be off the dole blokes, dark
from redundant Albion Mills (Idle), all
the broken dollpeople say: Meat meat give me
meat, boss: Boss me
or I go Bostik nostril
The radical language, syntax, sound and sensibility of some of MacSweeney’s work requires a gut reaction as well as (often, rather than) an intellectual response. Even the look of his poetry on the page can be unsettling. “Ranter” is an explosion of a sequence which reminds me a little of Ted Hughes’ “Crow” in its characterisation and development. It looks back to the English radical tradition,
Ranter: Leveller, Lollard,
Luddite, Man of Kent, Tyneside
whisperer of sedition,
wrecker of looms
feathered and peltstricken bound with skin . . .
Wolf Tongue makes for a grim read yet, for all that, the experience is on many levels redemptive. In the final words of the final poem*:
We are not stone, but we are in the grinder.
Everything is lost, and we are dust and done for.
* Ed: please note the layout of these poems does not follow the original; we’ve had difficulties with formatting.