Steven Lovatt reviews Cheryl’s Destinies by Stephen Sexton (Penguin, 2021)
It’s two years since Stephen Sexton’s debut collection If All the World and Love Were Young came out, or rather went off, like the explosion of a vast and unguessed storage facility for new possibilities in the English language. That collection didn’t have a contents page, for the same reason you can’t keep a meteor shower in a filing cabinet. I think its seventy-five poems were also innocent of commas (since you can’t staple a waterfall to a wall. I almost expected to find, heaped under the last poem, a dripping pile of warped and rusted commas thrown out by the force of the language).
So where do you go from there? Singularities are just that, and Cheryl’s Destines has half as many poems, a contents page and even the odd discreet comma. The emotional fission behind If all the World was the passing of Sexton’s mother. In Cheryl’s Destinies there are poems more conventionally ‘about’ things: a visit to the dentist’s, a visit to Rome, an old schoolfriend gone strange, the unappealing American pool champ Earl Strickland. There’s a poem made up of rearranged pieces from a guidebook to contract bridge. There’s a whole sequence of poems based on an unlikely (and, properly, unwholesome) mash-up of W. B. Yeats and The Smashing Pumpkins. In some poems, honestly, I’m not quite sure what’s going on, and it was initially reassuring to have the judgement of Dane Holt, Sexton’s friend and early reader of Cheryl’s Destinies that ‘This isn’t a book of firm grasps’.
It’s two years since Stephen Sexton’s debut collection ‘If All the World and Love Were Young‘ came out, or rather went off, like the explosion of a vast and unguessed storage facility for new possibilities in the English language
Despite some suggestively recurrent natural imagery (the moon, birds, deer) which perhaps points towards some future expansiveness, by temperament Sexton seems more an indoorsy type than one to roam the hills, and many poems are set in Belfast’s after-hours interiors: bars, pool halls and the bowling alley in which his persona encounters the eponymous Cheryl, who ‘is really into tarot’. At first reading, Cheryl seemed oddly peripheral to the collection as a whole, but later I came to think of her as the totem of its preoccupations and the in-text source of the coherence that, after all, allows something like a firm grasp on the book. For, one way or another, the theme of destinies is central here. Destinies, mind, not destiny: the plural is crucial, because of its promise that things could have been, could still be, are, different.
Over and again due respect is accorded to alternative fates: “… knowing the boys will be teenagers by then / or were already, or never won’t be”. Such itemising of possibilities, which could easily have seemed affected, in the context of many references to loss and pain instead implies something like a longing for redemption. Or if not redemption, with its claustrophobic religious finality, then at least restoration – a restoration of open-endedness and (incorrigible) plurality, a longing for more colour, wit, fun and time with friends and others we love, for the fullness of life and language to be renewed in the face of the loss of meaning inherent in individual deaths and the more insidious cultural deaths we feel threatened with. In the end, what needs to be restored, in our multiply surveilled, commodified and micro-managed age, is nothing less than possibility itself. From here it’s a short step to interpreting Cheryl’s Destinies in part as an assertion of the continuing importance of poetry in showing different possibilities and holding them open for / with the reader. That Earl Strickland, as a child, may have been able to predict the movements of the “fat striped watermelons” rolling in the back of the family pick-up truck is admirable, to be sure, but there’s something creepy about it too, and anxiety for the future of the imagination in a determinate world makes of the pool table’s green baize a walled garden for philosophical conjecture about the limits of freedom.
The language of the poems is always surprising and entertaining, and indeed it’s Sexton’s joy in words that you appreciate before all else
So many of these poems appear to skirt personal trauma, the beautiful word-play circumspect dressing for wells whose dark waters poetry can neither enter nor leave alone, or optimistic, breezy blueprints of houses which later prove haunted. Everywhere there’s an eloquent tension between levity and gravity. Experiences of humiliation and loss are not to be effaced, since “cruelty is a time traveller”, hence the two attempts, in ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Mysteries: Orthodox’, to comprehend an incident of childhood bullying. In a wider perspective, in ‘Marshalls of Saintfield’, history’s layers are peeled back from a present killing time in Ballynahinch to the 1798 Battle of Saintfield, in which a family was burned to death in their thatched cottage.
If all this sounds pretty heavy, then it’s worth emphasising that the language of the poems is always surprising and entertaining, and indeed it’s Sexton’s joy in words that you appreciate before all else. Throughout Cheryl’s Destinies I was reminded of Marina Tsvetaeva’s definition of creativity as 1. Susceptibility to the visitation 2. Control of the visitation. That Sexton is ‘susceptible’ is illustrated by a wonderful scene in which he describes being physically overtaken by poetic imagery while having a drink at the bowling alley:
I slurp a Coke
with plenty of chipped ice and before long
my head is full of icemen and their cold chariots,
horse-drawn ice ploughs, the lakes of Massachusetts.
There’s plenty of evidence elsewhere in the collection to justify taking this at face value, and with such a degree of susceptibility it’s just as well that Sexton’s control of his ‘visitations’ is equally impressive: the collection abounds in lovely visuals …
a barman all nerves and adrenaline / walks like a bride with a posy of stout
… and concinnous phrasing:
In wet yellow mackintoshes
kids arrive like emissaries
and the future keeps happening
One poem in Cheryl’s Destinies merits special mention. ‘So it is,’ was written in memory of the great Ciaran Carson, from whom I’d venture Sexton’s poetry has learned much in the way of poise and effrontery. The poem is also a tribute, not incidentally, to Belfast, a city whose post-industrial doldrums haven’t slowed its output of excellent poets, and which serves here as the site for an extraordinarily powerful and tender elegy. The achievement of ‘So it is,’ would be remarkable in any circumstances, but seems almost incredible in a poet who is still very young. Sexton puts into it all that levity, all that gravity, and a strange and magical thing happens: they’re revealed by the poet’s humaneness and power of vision to be complements, and in the end to weigh the same.
Returning to the question of where Sexton ‘goes’ in Cheryl’s Destinies, and how this collection establishes its own identity in the aftermath of the praise justly heaped on If All the World and Love Were Young, the answer is that he and the poetry go where they must, like all of us, out into possibility, over the hills and far away. And since we don’t know where we’re going or when it’s going to end, we might as well take in as much scenery as possible along the way. As Sexton says – and this is as close as he comes to a credo – “The detour’s handsomer by far than the main road”.
Steven Lovatt is a writer based in Swansea. He is a member of the International Literature Showcase, run by the British Council and the UK National Writing Centre, and his book Birdsong in a Time of Silence has been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize.