I have come late to Stephen Sexton’s magnificent book-length poem, If All the World and Love were Young,which won the Forward Prize for the best first collection in 2021. This book astonishes by its range and coherence, even though I don’t understand half of it. The book is an elegy for the poet’s mother but has for its structure the computer game, Super Mario. As my own knowledge of that game is confined to a hazy image of a dumpy, moustachioed Italian plumber occasionally glimpsed on a child’s Gameboy or Nintendo consol (and I’m not even sure I’m using the right terms here), most of the specific references to the game are lost on me, and I have no inclination to remedy that deficit.
The poem may make me feel old, but I welcome the way the poet has successfully and unobtrusively used strict form in a novel and exciting way. His long lines despite their appearance and frequent absences of punctuation and elliptical transitions are all 16 syllables in length and if Joyce can use the Odyssey as the structure for a novel, why shouldn’t a poet use the levels of the Mario games as the framework for his poem?
You can open this book anywhere and be rewarded with a frame/stanza/ section which on its own stimulates the imagination with its multi-layered language and levels of reference> Take this, for example:
Chocolate Island 2
As Dürer sees it under the hides of carburised iron thick
as armour plating fixed in place with rivets pinned along the seams
a polished gorget at the throat the rhino is mainly passive.
What he got wrong hardly matters since he’d never seen one himself
having just a poem a sketch imagination to go on
making magic of the mundane. And so the sun sets in the west
which is to be expected there over the marshes and deltas
I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.
Even after googling Chocolate Island 2 and discovering how to find the secret exit, I am none the wiser about how the poem relates to the game. But it doesn’t matter. This is a self-conscious piece of meta-writing where the poem comments on itself. Dürer, like the poet, goes beyond the everyday real world to present something which may not be a rhino but which is an imagined construct based on a rhino as the Mario world characters and obstacles are also imaginary constructs derived from aspects of reality. The poem justifies our right to make things up and to use them to communicate: ‘I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.’ Conversely, the poet’s use of Super Mario imagery conveys meaning to readers who have never seen it themselves. The language used to describe the rhino also seems to straddle the two worlds of imagination and reality; the rivets and armour plating suggest heavy industry and, without too much of a stretch, may evoke the Belfast shipyards, while the ‘polished gorget’ suggests the armour of knightly romance. Perhaps the sun setting in the west is mundane but the extension of the vista through the imagination ‘over the marshes and deltas’ has rendered it magical.
The necessity and interrelatedness of the two worlds is one of the continuing themes which gives the work its coherence and consistency. However, it is the momentum of the long lines, simultaneously waves of energy and surges of grief, which carry us onward through this extended threnody. The poem is double-faced, celebrating life and imagination while recognising and mourning a death; this is reflected in the second-hand title, If all the World and Love were Young, taken from Sir Walter Raleigh’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. The hypothetical conditional admits the possibility of the two worlds -the fantasy world of pastoral, not unlike the fantasy world of Super Mario, and the real world of everyday life, suffering and death.
Perhaps the Super Mario world is escapism, offering a brightly coloured and safe alternative to reality, where death can be cancelled: ‘once I was falling to my death/once I survived the fall landing in a trench scooped and jigsawed out/of the earth hello earth nice to see you amazed to be alive’. This alternative world is ‘as shallow as a pane of glass’; there is even a touch of nostalgia or self-pity in the way the writer looks back at his boyhood self:
I remember myself being remembered a little lotus
a cross-legged meditant for whom the questions floating in the air
are for a future self to voice decades from now…
The passage refers to a photograph the poet believes to have been taken of him sitting in front of the television screen playing Super Mario; the unreliability of the memory is typical of important moments of childhood which we are often unsure whether we really remember or only think we do because we have been told about them. The Super Mario game is obviously presented as a form of comfort food, or like a brightly coloured familiar teddy, something which allows the protagonist to muffle the pain he is experiencing: ‘the beloved is gone but there is always the story.’ However, this is only one layer of what the game represents; the persisting story is the persisting imagination which is implicated through references to high and popular culture, Dante to Roy Orbison. The affirmative, inclusive nature of the poem, ‘I adore you I adore you world’ makes it very different from other kinds of elegy, such as the unremitting gloom of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Nevertheless, the poem has almost unbearable moments of sadness like the memory of the mother halving a grapefruit:
my mother who cannot sleep halves a bright grapefruit whose feet whose toes
whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire
The brightness of the grapefruit intrudes like a technicolour splash into the dark pain of the night and the mother’s illness. Something about the slightly misplaced relative pronoun makes us linger on the fruit before recognising the extremity of suffering endured by the mother. The final poem seeks but does not quite manage to reconcile the two worlds: the coffin cannot quite become the television and the bright world of fantasy is relegated to the past, as the ‘if’ becomes ‘when’ and hypothesis or memory become equally unreal in the past indicative ‘was’:
And now I think I
remember what I meant to say which is only to say that once
when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing
once in the corner of the room once when I was sitting in its light.
After an achievement on this scale, it is difficult to see where the poet could go next, and it was with some trepidation I approached his second book, Cheryl’s Destinies. Certainly, this collection is a collection rather than a single poem and because it lacks a single driving subject, it is probably more difficult to read. Again, Sexton’s imagination makes links which the reader cannot always follow, or, at least, a reader of pensionable age, living in Oxford. Sometimes I recognise this is a failure of my imagination; sometimes, I feel excluded by a private or coterie frame of reference. For example, ‘O Lavery’s’ which appears to be about the game of pool will, I suspect, mean an awful lot more to its dedicatee, Dane Holt, than to me. The poems I do get, I like; ‘My Second Favourite Locked Room Mystery’ made me laugh. I don’t know about ‘The Burdens’, but I do know the goat in the ‘piebald sweater’; and I can recognise the possibilities of escape to other worlds only just suggested in the last stanza. ‘Café Cependant’ and ‘Romantic’ read like holiday poems. However, I am in danger of being too disparaging. In all these poems, even when they seem most obscure, there are brilliant moments of observation captured through the language: ‘an apprenticeship/of skateboarders chiselling/shivers of concrete from our civic spaces’ (The Impossible).
I don’t get Part II which purports to be ‘composed in collaboration with Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968), who revealed to me the identity of one of her many ‘communicators’ and the influence of The Smashing Pumpkins on the poetry of W.B. Yeats.’ This is a collage of quotations from Yeats, his wife and the lyrics on The Smashing Pumpkins album, Siamese Dream. Perhaps you need to be a Smashing Pumpkins fan, perhaps you need to be more invested in the poetry of Yeats. Each poem in the sequence is titled by the length in minutes and seconds of each of the songs on the album. It is probably very clever and it does take in some by now familiar ideas about imagination dissolving the space-time constraints of reality:
Is this heaven, says W. B. Yeats.
Virtually, says Billy, this is Georgia.
Why are there two poems in the collection with the same title, ‘Orthodox’, one in the first and one in the third part of the book? Are they about the same person, a playground bully in the first poem: ‘with his middle knuckle breaking rank/the boy jabbed me in the thigh’. In the second poem, he, or someone like him, has died: ‘the circuit breaker/faulty.’ The death and the memory of the boy’s physical violence prompt a reflection on the nature of physical identity when considered in relation to the ‘alien body-brain/of the octopus,’ which we are now told is highly intelligent but which experiences consciousness in a completely different way from us.
The third section ‘Mysteries’ is the part I found most rewarding. It includes a number of moving and effective elegies, including the powerful poem for Ciaran Carson, Sexton’s mentor, which concludes the book. ‘Gomez’, another elegy, is in ‘affectionate memory of Raul Julia’, the actor who played the part of Gomez Addams in The Addams Family. The two things to notice are that it is ‘affection’ which makes all these elegies remarkable, even when they swing furthest from reality; and secondly, how strongly the poet is influenced by the fictional worlds of film, tv and videogames, and how he acknowledges the truths they offer.
‘Mysteries’, contains many poems I do not understand but which nevertheless some part of me gets. They tell me stories and show me pictures which take me to places I don’t know but where I am moved and enchanted, without knowing why. Such poems are ‘The Dancers’ with its wonderful last lines, like the closing scenes from a foreign language film:
And you’ll say what a thing to share this flake of time
In their company, what a thing wild lavender
Can still flourish in the grounds of the derelict church.
I don’t know how the first stanza and the second relate to each other and I don’t know why the first word of each line is capitalised, as is customary in pre-20c verse though not usual here, but I don’t care, because the poem has lifted me up into its own world which is derived from the joys, sorrows and injustices of the real world. Similarly, I love ‘Terror’ which tells a tale of persecution and haunting which leads to a family abandoning their home to protect their son: ‘For Albert we left./ The world still has a big soft place for him/so we packed our things and set out for it.’ What convinces about these poems is, as Sexton himself has suggested, following Marianne Moore, these are fictional narratives with real toads in them, although in Sexton’s ‘imaginary garden’ there is an Orca on the lawn. In this poem, a family was driven out by persecution perhaps inflicted by their neighbours, who perhaps experience remorse
some tomorrow morning the people
stand naked in their mirrors
saying I’m sorry, for everything. I’m sorry.
As in Sexton’s first book, the worlds of dream, of fiction, of video games are not, in the end, an evasion of reality, but a method of accommodating and acknowledging truth.