An independent small press poetry review

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ISBN 0 9546487 6 5

Translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock
Illustrations by Lynda Horgan
ISBN 0 9546487 4 9

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This page last updated: 11th December 2007.

VORTEX is John Sexton's third collection of poetry. Here are poems that carefully dissect the careless cruelty of life, in the case of BUTCHER'S DAUGHTER, its unrequited love under the scalpel:

	Next you display some hearts
	under a glass window.
	The smallest of which,
	on the left hand corner,
	is mine.
A more sorrowful view of unrequited love is found in CHENG YUN-SU UNDER SORROW BRIDGE, which ends:
	I will wait here till water swallows me,
	the river bursts and rises to Heaven;
	till the moon's a hook from which hangs my heart.
This poem displays the poet's sensitivity to the natural environment, which appears in several other of these poems, including I AM A POEM OF NIGHTINGALES:

	Night lasts forever,
	and the snow is white in the darkness.
	I am the eternal moment of the nightingale.
There are also several surreal poems, rich in imagery and folkloric references. For example, A LETTER TO THE KING OF IRELANDS DAUGHTER, the narrator is turned into a kitten and then finds that:
	the house was gone 
	and I could see you 
	pushing it down the street 
	on castors.
Another surreal poem, IN MY TWELFTH YEAR is a poignant poem of lost innocence and over-protective parenting, the narrator and his brother find an angel in the garden, but when they tell their Dad:
	he erected a tall fence made from sheets of corrugated iron.
	You'll see no angels now, he said.
Exploring his own role as a father in VORTEX, he watches his own autistic son take a shower and thinks about Joseph Mengele's possible thoughts about the boy. It is a powerful meditation on Nazism, but also deeply affirmative:
	I can see a half circle of children, emaciated, their faces miserable.
	Some are visibly retarded, others invisibly so,
	but I can see what they are, know what they are,
	have the space inside me that they fit.
This collection is powerful stuff that works both emotionally and intellectually and repays re-reading.

reviewer: Juliet Wilson.

The trinity of artists involved in SHADOWS BLOOM, a Doghouse imprint of haiku, come together very neatly, affirming Sexton's introductory words that the three texts

are three separate visions of the same environment.
Sexton's introduction, of itself, is a quiet understated piece of prose, reflecting on his journey into haiku, his investigations and appropriations with the form and represents a wry apology of sorts to purists, observing himself as a "haiku heretic" at one stage in his career, as he considered "haiku as just another prosodic plaything."

As Sexton studied the haiku form and came into contact with Gabriel Rosenstock, he learned a new kind of freedom with the form:

that meditative instant of perception in which the poem itself is formed.
Although Sexton considers some of his haiku to work against the tradition of haiku, he adds that his "haiku heresies" have helped to inform him about the "haiku truths" that he has discovered: his "darkness" becomes "the instrument of light" illuminating Sexton's moments of discoveries found inside SHADOWS BLOOM.

For inspiration Sexton naturally uses his environment: that of the world around him and for the most part it is the natural world, the three dimensional world of sight, sounds and smell that invest his vision of nature with significance. Like any poet Sexton searches for the new way of conveying meaning, taking the moon, the stars, crows and jackdaws cats and foxes and the earth as some points of reference in his outlook.

The collection begins with:

	missing an ear
		and still smiling
which functions to the reader like a snapshot of an old battered man, friendly in his outlook on the world.

Sexton's relationship with crows dotted across the whole collection reminds the reader of Ted Hughes CROW collection, but it is Sexton's faithful observance, admiration and yet detachment from them which allows an amusement at their antics:

	a good game
	but shadows of crows
	are too fast to catch
	crows calling more
	sky darkens
Some outstanding moments of separate haiku moments are caught in these:
	the stars keep their place
	a fox barks
	in the darkness
Here Sexton captures a moment of time in his net of words, like a pause in the earth's turning, without any further comment, illustrating the fine line between less and more.
	on her back in wet grass
	eyes shut to grey sky
	the abandoned doll
In this haiku, Sexton captures for the reader a distilled image. What the abandoned doll could suggest to the reader has such a multi-layered reading that for certain, feminist criticism and psychological criticism could have a field day!
	bitter wind — 
	warm your fingers 
	over these daffodils
Here, Sexton allows the reader's mind the imagination to fan the imagined warmth of the flowers' colour yellow, without mentioning it or allowing cliché to dominate.
	busy in the garden of my fingertip the ant
shows Sexton playing with a moment of concentration, reminiscent of how children explore the world unconcerned with the adult conception of time.
	daffodils rot
	in the vase
	their shadows bloom
is beautifully illustrated by Lynda Horgan, in monochrome, showing the huge shadows behind the smaller vase of dying blooms. This is indeed the title haiku of the collection and is a good indicator of the overall cyclical theme of the book: the place of decay in the natural cycle and the sense that mystery and wonder should have in contemplating the environment we live in.

Sexton's experiments with using haiku as separate stanzas in longer pieces, are attached as appendices, but bear close reading too as works in their own right. Appendix C, ISSA IN THE GOLDEN CORRIDOR, uses thirteen successive haiku as a descriptive narrative to illustrate the dream sequence of Issa. Appendix F, WORK OF THE HEART, uses more surreal imagery to convey the sense of work, seeming as a metaphor for something larger in the sum of the haiku:

	in his workshop—
	the heartmaker sews a new heart
	snails smear the window
Nature inveigles its way into all of Sexton's work, informing the collection and bringing the reader a brand new awareness of how things are and how they are shaped by our perceptions. Unfortunately, this reader's Irish is so stunted, as to be unable to comment on Gabriel Rosenstock's translations, which Sexton informs us stand as "poems in their own right." Rosenstock's other works as Gaeilge have won him recognition and praise both in Ireland and beyond. Horgan's monochrome illustrations add to another method of seeing Sexton's work, and all three combine to the greater good of the whole. Sexton is not at all the "haiku heretic," of his introduction, rather he is a poet taking new risks with an old form, the results of which tease as much as they inform. What are rules for, if not to be broken: when they may be broken in such a rewarding way?

reviewer: Barbara Smith.