(Penguin Press, 2021); pbk: £9.99
Stephen Sexton’s second collection Cheryl’s Destinies is a postmodern and playful investigation of mysticism, temporality and personal relations. Divided into three acts, these poems flit through space and time, like a fortune teller shuffling her cards.
We first meet our titular mystic Cheryl in the first act, in ‘My Second Favourite Locked Room Mystery’. There is not a great deal of Cheryl revealed, but the way she continues to crop up throughout the collection does give the impression of familiarity, which is perhaps the mystic’s way. In the final act, in a dazzlingly sombre poem titled ‘Humour’,we learn that Cheryl has been ‘receding lately into herself / like a little sailboat unmoored / drifting on the great moony sea.’ Cheryl’s secrets are withheld from the reader, and she is confined to the third person, yet Sexton wields a tenderness of language and turn of phrase that forges a readerly affection for this poetic persona. Also, in the poem ‘A Short History of Happiness’, withthe ‘she’ of the poem being read perhaps as Cheryl herself, we learn that she
almost out of history
which is the name
we give to the currency of things
which might have happened differently
Lines like this demonstrate the importance of the intangible, which the third act in particular grasps around the edges of, asking those impossible questions that poetry asks of us, such as in ‘A Pledge’:’Is it moral to abstract oneself from someone else’s suffering or the opposite?’
But it is the middle section, which declares itself a product of the absurd last year of pandemic chaos that is the gem of this collection. A conversation, less epistolary and more akin to a shared studio session, occurs between Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Irish poet W.B Yeats. Poems such as ‘Disarm’ go so far as to read as veritable duets between the two:
The bitterness of one who’s left alone,
Says Billy, and Yeats agrees, and goes on:
Surely there are men who have made their art
Out of no tragic war, lovers of life,
Impulsive men that look for happiness
And sing when they have found it?
There is a characteristically postmodern humour throughout this collection too, such as the poem ‘The Messages’ whose double-entendre title conflates the mundanity of grocery shopping with the mysticism of receiving, reminiscent of that Yeatsian notion of the poet as a receiver for the metaphysical world.
References to astrology abound, with Sexton employing a horoscopic lexicon in the poems predominantly as a negatory function (such as the poem ‘O,’ ‘it is NOT because Mercury is in retrograde’, ‘it is NOT because you are Aquarius that I dislike you’). This negatory tone chips away at the world in an attempt to excavate what lies beneath our superstitions and cosmic reliance.
A particularly illuminating inclusion is ‘Bummer’, a translation of 19th century French poet Alfred De Musset’s poem ‘Tristesse’, which ends with perfectly-pitched poignancy:
God calls and we ought to pick up.
My only asset in this world
is to have recently wept.
God features as a background figure throughout this collection, such as in the very first poem where the poet’s grandfather tells him that God is ‘the name of the plateau you view the consequences of your living from.’
These poems seem, above all, to be attempts or records of attempts at communication. Be it communication with the metaphysical, the mystical, the omnipotent, what burns under the surface is a desire to hear and be heard. In the centre of the second act, the poem ‘Silverfuck’ has the lines:
A metaphor is just a person
trying very hard to be understood
at the edge of their imagination.
An imaginative collection that implores the reader to decipher and decode the symbols it plots throughout, Sexton’s collection is a cosmic minefield of metaphors and mysticism that gently reveals how much we do not know about our world; poems that throw incandescent rays of light on our shadowy realities