Shadow of the Owl by Matthew Sweeney
PBS Wild Card Winter 2020
Shadow of the Owl is Matthew Sweeney's final collection, bringing together the poems he wrote during a year of debilitating illness. He died from Motor Neuron Disease in 2018 shortly after publishing My Life as a Painter, written before he became ill, but which was – like all his previous collections – preparation for this final work.
In a sequence of dark fables, a hapless figure is hounded by a procession of invisible enemies who want him dead. These jokers – kidnappers, assassins, liars all – have many methods at their disposal, from crucifixion or hanging to bombing or mauling by crocodile… A menacing owl comes to the garden each night for twelve nights, but refuses to deliver its devastating news.
All of Sweeney’s verve and spiky humour are present in these last poems, following, as always, the unnerving logic of dreams. But the dream has become a nightmare, and the catastrophe, impending in all the earlier collections, has now come to pass. The man on the run needs to reach new heights of ingenuity, if he is to escape, repeatedly, the most horrible of deaths. The poet is writing for his life.
For more than forty years Matthew Sweeney sought to capture, in poetry, the life of a body menaced and condemned to wander in a terrifying place – but a body fully alive to the sensuous pleasures of the world, and the vulnerability of exposure to its loss. His final poems are imbued with a lyrical beauty and great sadness at leaving that world just as the spirit was burning as brightly as ever.
'...one of the most adventurous, life-enhancing and distinctive poets of his gifted generation.' – Bill Swainson paying tribute to the late Matthew Sweeney in The Guardian
'Matthew had the courage of his own idiosyncratic sensibility; nobody now writing has Matthew’s gift for employing language and images of fable to such a dark and unsettling effect, ringing the changes from tenderness to dark comedy with such power and verve.' – Theo Dorgan, paying tribute to Matthew Sweeney in The Irish Times
‘Matthew Sweeney has been a singular presence in Irish poetry for decades, and the much-travelled, Donegal-born poet had finished two reassuringly characteristic new books before his death in August. One of them, My Life as a Painter, includes many new signature poems, tales whose surprising images suddenly gather additional narrative force.’ – John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
‘… his was a poetry of great possibility, a poetry of hope – for all its apparent darkness – a poetry of an imagined, alternative reality.’ – Keith Payne, Dublin Review of Books [on My Life as a Painter]
‘In Sweeney’s universe everything has multiple and perplexing meanings – his ‘alternative realism’ permits the everyday to co-exist with the fantastic in equally poignant and hilarious ways.’ – Pippa Little, Magma [on My Life as a Painter]
‘Sweeney… carries us with him on strange, riddling trajectories in his inimitable, pleasingly conversational manner.’ – Michael Glover, The Tablet [on My Life as a Painter]
‘There’s an exuberance about the fantastical imagery of Cork-based Matthew Sweeney that gives his work the kind of popular accessibility you don’t often find in a poet so accomplished and experienced. Despite the fact that My Life as Painter is his 12th collection, he remains not only committed to taking his art to its highest form, but to ensuring his words still touch his readers.’ – Cork Evening Echo