POETRY REVIEW by Edward Reilly
John W Sexton, The Offspring of the Moon, Salmon Poetry, Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare, 2013
Already with four previous books of poetry, extensive journal publication, children’s novels, articles and other media output in circulation, John Sexton (b. 1958) is a well-established writer who has chosen to live in the remote town of Kenmare, Co Kerry.
Sexton is not one to pull his punches, as can be seen in the prose poem ‘On the Morning a President ordered the Invasion of Iraq’. Whatever the debatable virtues of direct intervention may be, whether in the case of Iraq back then, or Syria today, this portrait of cruelty and indifference is a sharp indictment of a man committed to a ‘dull job’. Sexton’s political satire can be indirect. Bush, or is it Saddam Hussein, observes some ‘ants in the sugar bowl’ and proceeds to experiment on them, feeding these hapless creatures ‘to the goldfish’, which are ‘disdainfully disinterested’ of the proffered sacrificial victims, in much the same way as jihadists regard the West, and his own indifference to the whole mess he has caused. Sexton can also be very blunt, as in the dystopian tale of an encounter in ‘The City of Angels’, and then in ‘Let’s Drop a Box of Pins‘, where ‘a pin is a subtle kind of bomb’, suitable for someone from distant Texas who wants to play the role of the ziggurat deity.
Political incompetence is attacked again in ‘The Unintentional Portents of Wang-Yu-Feng’, but this time with wry humour, for as Sexton notes, it only needs ‘one bad egg, an Empire spoiled’. Nor do other pretensions escape his sharp eye: Prof Lightshade, the foolish academic of ‘In and Out of Their Heads’, not only disproves the existence of dancing angels ‘on the heads of pins’, he discovers ‘yeast-men … inhabiting the flat circular pen’, no doubt in the back room of some dim síbín in the back streets of Cork.
Sexton’s theology is as bitter as his politics. In ‘A House of Golden Thread’, there is an almost Blakean vision in which the angel abandoned by God, ‘driven off in a hearse’, has been left bereft to play the part of a drunken fool in some unwritten cosmic drama. That being so, ‘Crow’ is more in the vein of Ted Hughes’ hymns to his particular dark deity, and even if unfathomable darkness may be at the core of the subject’s nature Sexton graces him with a certain irony. Whilst the crow’s ‘black feathers offend daylight’, as does his beak and his speech, yet this mere crow reveals himself for what he truly is capable, ‘to create a pure light / and begin the world again’. Likewise in ‘Badger’ we are graced with a ‘householder’s glimpse / of a god’. The numinous is apparent also in ‘Bog Asphodel’, where the plant boasts of its flowers as enticements that ‘shall bid you here’ to the impoverished bog-lands, but visits only the bone-weakening curse of ‘cruppany’ on cattle, and by implication, on us. What is golden is not true. As with many of Sexton’s poems, the reader may need to be reminded of some of the basic notions of classical mythology, such as the belief that souls are sent to dwell on the asphodel meadows, by the banks of the Styx.
So much for the sorrows of life, as the delights of this book are to be found in Sexton’s nature poems, each of which edge towards a magicked realm. I suppose there is nothing as contradictory as a frog, green, wet and slimy, noisy when sleep is needed, and yet so marvellous in that a frog can boast ‘my skin would cover / three acres’, and that ‘I hold the world inside my mouth’. And whilst this frog is the ‘jewel’ of creation it is also, like each of us, susceptible to predators and death, being ‘the Omega of swallowed things’. ‘The way back’ celebrates the family cat who ‘mesmerize[s] you till your heart’s beyond / the threshold of the living’ and who would effect a transformation worthy of one of Ovid’s tales, as would the unnamed ‘she’ of ‘A Cloak of Owls’. Then there are Sexton’s fiercely erotic poems, such as ‘Comb’, ‘Autumnal Garden’ and the delightful ‘Sunlight’, my favourite of the book, in which Phoebus visits ‘the surface of lakes, the sea’ even / the tepid water in a bucket’, and makes love to ‘Wives [who] lie out on their lawns, relishing my / touch’ whilst mere, dumb husbands toil. Again, there’s a certain something wonderful at work here.