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This review is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.


The staples of Matthew Sweeney's poetry are by now familiar. Bloodless, pristine, and peopled variously by cacti, crows, jellyfish and corpses (especially the drowned), Sweeney's odd and, by turns, dark and amusing narratives steadfastly refuse to throw light on the questions they raise. These poems are fables, but without a moral. Influenced by Kafka and Eastern European folklore traditions, they reflect a pessimistic view of life as meaningless, harsh and inconsequential: roads are 'crooked' and 'empty', and, as Sweeney writes in this new collection (the first since his Selected Poems of 2002), 'no one knows / what'll be there at the end'. From another new poem, 'The Secrets of a Cactus', for example:

no minute scanning
or poking with a skewer
will reveal anything ... No,
the secrets of a cactus
are its to keep. Be happy
with the tiny red flowers
it sometimes conjures for you.

Though it builds on developments in A Smell of Fish (2000), such metaphorical writing is hardly what we have come to expect from Sweeney (a most 'unpoetic' poet, as a rule). Indeed quite a few of the poems in Sanctuary seem to be the product of a generally warmer and more open approach to things. The title-poem, which centres around a fledgling couple's late-night manoeuvrings as bombs go off in the streets, acknowledges the primary importance of human relations, suggesting that ...

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