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This review is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

Cover of Twentyone Men and a GhostCover of Tenants
Alison BrackenburyWill It Work? Matthew Sweeney, Twentyone Men and a Ghost (Smith/Doorstop) £5.00
Frank Koenegracht, Selected Poems, trans. Sarah Hart & Koenraad Kuiper, (Cold Hub Press) NZ $19.50
Jenny King, Tenants (Smith/Doorstop) £5.00
Victoria Kennefick, White Whale (Southword Editions) £8.00
Virginia Astley, The Curative Harp (Southword Editions) £8.00

Twenty-one poems, all about men (and one ghost). Will it work? I approached Matthew Sweeney’s pamphlet as nervously as if it were a (cruelty-free) rodeo. But Sweeney stays on board. Here is the ‘Tall Man’:
   
A huge russet horse came round the corner
at a gallop, and barely stopped at the man
who put a pointy toe in a stirrup, and
hauled himself into the saddle.

Sweeney, a superb storyteller, does not distract by surface show. His lines look bare, but are a joy to read aloud. Sounds work, like muscles under polished skin, in the silky ‘s’ of ‘russet’ and ‘horse’, in the hoof-sharp ‘c’ of ‘came’ and ‘corner’. Then comes the flourish, the casual grace of the ‘pointy toe’. This is masterly. And we still have eighteen men (and the ghost) to go, through curt couplets, breakneck longer lines, and snatches of song.

Imagination can run wild in Sweeney’s poems. His ‘Fat Man’ sports a ‘purple silk toga’. But, shrewdly, he also scoops a sentence from workaday speech: ‘Ah, he’s something, that blind man.’ These poems are not freak shows; rather, Sweeney suggests, an ‘alternative autobiography’. Endearingly, almost every man has an animal familiar: ‘his friend, the orang-outan’. And who but Sweeney, aided by wisps of rhyme, could make a fairy story familiar? ‘They’d dance right through / his held-out hand / as if they were creatures / of smoke or wind.’ I hope that, like his Ghost, Sweeney is ‘staying on’ to dazzle us with more work.

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