IS there is such a thing?

Shaun Traynor

Light Timothy O’Grady Secker and Warburg 266pp £14.99
Sanctuary Matthew Sweeney Cape 54 pp £8.00


(A Novel by Timothy O’Grady)

Once very long ago, I found a book which changed my life. It was By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

I came across it, unheralded, in a very ordinary Chiswick newsagent where most people just bought newspapers and cigarettes but for some reason, that weekend, the shop had a novelty bookstand and on it some paperbacks. I bought By Grand Central Station and began reading it even as I crossed the road, it was if I had been guided to it.

Later that day I had lunch with my friend (and mentor) John Heath-Stubbs. I said to him I had been reading passages of what I could only call poetic prose. He said, quite definitely, “There is no such thing. There is either poetry or there is prose.” I summoned up a lot of courage and said “I don’t agree. I’ve just read what can only be called poetic prose and what’s more it’s what I am going to write. It is my destiny.”

He giggled.

Later that week I went to a party to celebrate George Barker’s sixtieth birthday. It was down Oxford street way, in a flat. I must explain that in those days I wasn’t at all on the literary scene, I had been introduced to JHS by Eddie Linden who had met me in The French and John really was the only writer I knew. I had certainly never been to a literary party nor had I published a word of poetry or prose, although I intended to...

I had heard of George Barker from JHS but knew little about him at that stage. I entered the room and was ushered to a seat on a couch, a low couch with people already sitting on it, and I sat beside, almost snuggled up against, a Canadian woman. She asked me what I did, was I a writer?

I said yes, I was. I elaborated and said that I had written some poems, but that I had read something very recently which had changed my ambitions for my own writing.

I continued to talk (babble really) and explained that I had read a novel called By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept, that it was by a woman writer, it was what can only be called poetic prose and that, that was how I intended to write from then on.

The Canadian woman looked perplexed and then said “I’m Elizabeth Smart, I wrote By Grand Central Station. I wish you luck.”

I don’t remember anything of the evening after that but I remember the next morning starting to work on my magnum opus.

The first line of my “poetic prose” novel began “I have grown old in too many cities” and it was supposed to develop into a dialogue between an old man and his alter-ego youth, it was to have spanned cities I had not, as then, even visited.

It was to be a romantic, lyrical masterpiece.

But having got the first line, I kind of relaxed and really, rather left it at that. I never got to write that novel, other things intervened.

When I read Timothy O’Grady’s novel, LIGHT, I realised this was the book I had promised Elizabeth Smart I would write.

O’Grady has undoubtedly done a better job than I could have done, I can present this novel to you as a piece of fine poetic prose which also tells a story, keeps the reader engaged from first page to last, and is – in effect – a lyrical masterpiece.

So what is O’ Grady’s first line? It is an older man speaking of a younger man:

“I met him under the green awning of the Café Voltaire in a corner of the Stary Rynek in Krakow during an early evening in the month of September ...”

The narrator continues,

“He was wearing a long, black cashmere coat with the collar turned up. His hands flew about like startled white birds when he spoke... on his lap was the book Physics and Philosophy by Werner Heisenberg...

I had come to Stary Rynek to listen to the trumpet calling from the high steeple of the Mariacki church and to take a glass of Zubrowka.

To think of the cities of the world where I have searched for this pale green drink ....”

The narrator goes on to say of the youth he is regarding,

“Young man, why is it you carry about you the look of an abandoned church?”

This is the crunch line of the first part of the novel. You have to be able to accept this kind of wild romanticism without question, without analysis, it has got to flow over you, or the novel won’t work for you. However if you like the first sip ....

As the novel develops it becomes an un-shared dialogue between the two, as age and youth meet in a similar quest, the quest for a lost love.

Each leads the narrative in turn.

For a lyric novel like this to be successful, especially after such a flowery opening, it needs to be sustained by events, events which might explain why this young man’s face should be so abandoned-church-like.

There does come a time for analysis:

Timothy O’Grady has sustained his narrative in a tantalising, mirror-image way.

As the old man has searched the cities of the world for his pale green drink, so the young man has searched for a young woman he “almost knew” in a bar in Poland years ago. He was smitten, then became obsessed.

Both men are obsessed by a lost love of a kind that cannot be set aside.

It is therefore, a highly romantic novel, bears comparison to By Grand Central Station and also to Obsession, for like A.S. Byatt’s wonderfully addictive novel, it binds past and present in a nerve-tingling and very fluid way.

It also has that wonderfully seedy, back-street-European feel to it, rather like Monteiro’s film, Recollections of the Yellow House.

What then of the title?

A study of physics is the great brooding metaphor lurking along the spine of the novel, you feel you might find notes made in the margin!

The young man is an amateur research scientist manquee, he pores over books all day in an excited state ...it is another quest.

He is well aware of the difficulties of his research but also of the glimmer of chance which does exist; he clutches at straws, he tilts at windmills ..

“In the library I read of how an uneducated Englishman’s construction of the first dynamo ended one hundred and fifty years of tranquil certainty in the world of physics. Up to then it had been thought Newton had found the mathematics for all the workings of the visible world...but the dynamo demonstrated the existence of wave radiation and there was nothing in Newton which could make sense of that. Shortly afterwards it was demonstrated that light moved at a constant speed irrespective of its source... it was the only thing in all the world to behave in such a way but it was enough to break the most fundamental of Newton’s laws, the laws of motion. Einstein found the solution in his special theory of relativity. Then he in turn was upended by quantum mechanics. And so physics has moved through time, a beautiful, harmonious and nearly complete picture of all that is elaborated by one physicist undermined in turn by a single troublesome discovery made by another ...around me now the records and the written labours of others with whom it is fruitless to compare myself. When I go I will leave no mark. Yet in this history of the scientists is a kind of dream of my life. That feeling of reaching for the final piece, then it all falling away.”

The next chapter begins,

“ I get up. I put on a cardigan and then my bathrobe and go out to the kitchen. I make tea and a boiled egg and bring them with a banana and a slice of bread back into the bedroom.”

A prosaic and subdued enough start to another day which, as sunlight filters in through the curtain will be, inevitably, another day of highly charged quest.


This fine new book of poems by Irish poet, Matthew Sweeney, has at its hub and as its title, one of his finest poems.

Sanctuary is a departure for Sweeney, it seems to have been written in a different country and in a different phase of his life. Here is what seems on the surface, to be a poem about seduction but is much more; it is perhaps a metaphor of how life and events around us seduce us and in so doing, we allow ourselves to forget, for a few moments, the horrors of the manipulating world outside and of how we consciously and unconsciously collude with it.

The whole book has an European drift to it and this poem, had it been written ten years ago, might have been about Belfast; now it has a wider, more frighteningly global significance, the irony of the title is truly gripping:

(From) Sanctuary

Stay awhile. Don’t go just yet.

The sirens are roaming the streets,

The stabbing youths are out in packs ...

I have a Bordeaux you’ll like,

Let’s open it, (I’ve a second bottle, too.)

And a goat’s cheese to fast for,

Also a blue from the Vale of Cashel ...

Was I expecting you to stay?

No, I always eat like this.

Hear that – wasn’t it a gunshot?

Come closer, turn the music up...

A top–up?

You’re the kind of girl I like.

Listen, that was definitely a bomb.

Maybe ...

My favourite poem is Ice Hotel. This poem is about the famous hotel built of ice which melts gradually.

It stands for long enough (several months) for there to be a bar and bedrooms and people staying, then it fades and falls, simply melts away.

A wonderful metaphor!

Sweeney meets the ice sculptor:

... Not that I lay on naked ice,

but on the skin of reindeers,

piled high, as on a sled.

First, though, I went to the bar –

No beer, only vodka –

And I met my sculptor there ...

Interesting that if art did indeed follow Life, then the poem would also melt, disappear, not at all what the poet might have intended.

There is another poem, haunting and elusive, called In the Dust: which begins:

And then in the dust he drew a face,

the face of a woman, and he asked

the man drinking whiskey beside him

if he’d ever seen her, or knew who she was ...

He threw another plank on the fire,

drained his glass and filled it again,

watching his dog rise to its feet

and start to growl at the dirt road that stretched

empty to a hilly horizon ...

Later in the poem the dog’s barking is described as “gunfire,” there is – as always in Sweeney’s poetry – a lurking menace, it is truly Pinteresque.

While the poem Sanctuary, is about finding something, albeit in a terroir you don’t relax in, there is a sense of irretrievable loss in In the Dust.

And I just love poems that begin with the conjunction and, you feel you must be in the spell of a mysterious storyteller, one in whom you can believe and by whom, be enchanted. It was fascinating to read of what lengthy consideration Seamus Heaney gave to his first word “Now” in his translation of Beowulf ; this book is stirred in the same witchy brew.

Matthew Sweeney’s early work was peninsular, surreal and often frightening. In his Bridal Suite (Cape Poetry 1997) there was an empty marriage bed and the next day whilst walking he finds a penis lying in a field. These juxtapositions from poem to poem in a collection are startling and unnerving.

In Sanctuary he has moved inland and has built past the archipelago; with this sort of progress he can build a continent.

Matthew Sweeney is a maturing, important poet who binds with posterity like Brancusi’s Kiss.