Book Review: If All The World And Love Were Young – Stephen Sexton


Posted 2 months ago in Print

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If All The World And Love Were Young

Stephen Sexton

Penguin

“There lingers a Romantic strain, yet never jaded, in Sexton’s use of imagery and symbol, which strategically exploits the bucolic arcadian tradition. The overall mood is dreamy and ethereal, but cast with shadows.”

As a kid, I played a good bit of Nintendo, and years later I found a T-shirt in a gift shop featuring the iconic grey console on its chest, with “Classically Trained” in retro font beneath. This T-shirt could stand as a perfect symbol for Stephen Sexton’s aim and achievement in his debut poetry collection, where classical meets modern. The poems chart the final illness and death of the poet’s mother, a timeless (if tragic) theme. They do so while superimposing the otherworldly landscapes of Super Mario World onto the poems’ dreamwork. If you’re at all like me, your misspent, thumb-welted, youth might finally come in handy when navigating this oneiric volume’s multiple ‘worlds’, with Mario as your avatar-cum-guide.

It is Sexton’s innovative appropriation of that portly plumber, Mario, that marries his poetic vision with the popular cultural mainstream. And the invocation of plumber seems apt: for Sexton seeks to plumb the profundities of elegy in exploration of the otherworldly, just as forlorn Orpheus (the archetypal poet) pursued his own lost beloved into the depths of the Underworld. There lingers a Romantic strain, yet never jaded, in Sexton’s use of imagery and symbol, which strategically exploits the bucolic arcadian tradition. The overall mood is dreamy and ethereal, but cast with shadows.

Like its endnote ‘CREDITS’, the cultural frame and referential range of the collection is unapologetically postmodern, but not in a way that’s alienating; Mario’s World is already fit for that purpose in the uncanny familiarity of its untrodden paths. Sexton’s poems remain inclusive and invitational: and you, the ‘excellent and generous’ – indeed, ‘super reader’ – are a companion frequently acknowledged with deference and sincerity. Sexton safeguards the individualised ‘I’ as a shifting signifier that can stand in for the reader’s private self ‘astray in an overwhelming world’ (Sontag). Mario embodies Everyman, and therefore you and me both, in addition to Sexton’s own personal avatar: “It’s a-me, Mario,” epigraphs the volume, but Mario is just one of Sexton’s superimposed personae, a poetic mask, we surmise. Likewise, Sexton presents himself as self-appointed Cicerone when he descends into the underworld of his own private grief. Much like Mario, the poems’ rhythms exhibit a relentless forward momentum which reflect the ever-onward spirit of the quester.

Poetry aficionados will want to explore this book, safe in the knowledge that Sexton, touted as the Next Big Thing in Irish Poetry, has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize 2019 for Best First Collection. Rest assured that though the verse is unrhymed, it exhibits a studied metrical control. Sexton’s deft use of elliptical syntax to signpost thematic shifts and effect emotive transitions repeatedly disrupts one’s readerly expectations.

Sexton does what all true poets do: makes us ‘see’ our world, albeit old, afresh; crafting a new prism, a diffracting idiom, through which to view it; making you remember the things you’d forgotten you knew (as in childhood, ‘the fuzz of the carpet against your cheek’, or ‘the secret door in the hedgerows / where hosts of robins passing make exactly the sound of the wind’). Superb.

Words: Tom Tracey

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