In the fourth of our series of poems to make you smile, Mat Riches, Jane Routh and Alan Buckley choose favourite funny-serious poems by Matthew Sweeney, Michael McCarthy and Kathryn Maris
Mat Riches chose ‘The Ice Hotel’ by Matthew Sweeney. Mat says, “I first encountered Matthew Sweeney at some point in the early 2000s. I think it must have been after 2004 because that’s when the book that this poem comes from came out. It was at a reading in Foyles. I was fresh off the boat to live in London. I knew no one in the poetry scene and turned up at the reading to be handed a beer (amazing!) and to see this raggedy looking man on stage (Sweeney) quoting Tom Waits in his intro (“It’s colder than a gravedigger’s ass” from ‘Diamonds on my windshield’). Christ! Where was I?
“And then he read this, and I had my eyes opened. I didn’t know this stuff was possible. It’s not funny ha-ha, but it is funny peculiar in terms of the scale of the story, trying to imagine what had happened behind the need to go back under a “false name”.
“It is serious in the way it questions beauty, and our need to commercialise beauty, and in the way it sees beauty as transient (“loving the way it can’t be the same”). Most importantly, it wrings such serious questions out of a man’s drunken trip somewhere. I am probably missing something in the poem, but in some ways Sweeney was my sculptor (not that I am saying I can write like him), but I “went to the bar” and I “met my sculptor there”.”
The Ice Hotel
I’m going back to the ice hotel,
this time under a false name
as I need to stay there again.
I’ll stand in the entrance hall,
marvelling at this year’s design,
loving the way it can’t be the same
because ice melts and all here is ice –
the walls, the ceiling, the floor,
the seats in the lobby, the bed.
Not that I lay on naked ice,
but on the skins 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,
or I should say, my ice sculptor
whose pieces were on display
in every room in the ice hotel,
and who told me his name was Thor.
We stood in that ice-blue light
swapping whisper after whisper,
drinking vodka after vodka
till we agreed to go to bed,
and neither of us slept that night.
Let me tell you about that bed –
ice pillars, two foot high,
each with a lit candle on top,
and wedged in the middle of each
the four corners of an ice sheet
three, maybe four, inches thick.
On this the pelts were laid,
then the Polar Survival bag
that the two of us climbed inside.
Next morning, over Arctic char,
he offered me any sculpture
but which could I take home?
And I didn’t want to go home
but I went. Now I’m going back –
back to the latest ice hotel
with its blue ice, its silence,
its flickering candlelight,
its sculptures I can claim.
(from Sanctuary (Cape, 2012))
Read The Ice Hotel by Matthew Sweeney on the LRB
Jane Routh chose ’37 Grasmere Drive’ by Michael McCarthy. Jane says, “I’d spent an hour or so searching for a poem by Thomas Lynch before it dawned on me that a funeral parlour with a cigarette in a corpse’s mouth likely wasn’t in a poem but in one of his essays. When my partner asked what on earth – books everywhere – was I looking for, at least that search had defined what I wanted: not so much a good punchline (you won’t re-read just for that) but the writing and rigmarole of arriving at it. “You mean like that poem of Michael McCarthy’s?”
“Yes! No need to ask which poem he meant. And ‘37 Grasmere Drive’, with its extraordinary and vivid details, is as compassionate, wise, and self-deprecating as any Michael wrote. Those last five words always make me laugh: his wicked Irish humour in the service of understanding.”
37 Grasmere Drive
Discarded items lie half hidden in the garden.
A tricycle. An upturned pram, its wheels missing.
A black dog is curled up on the thrown-out couch.
The boy is about eight, his face round as the sun.
‘Is you mother in?’ I ask.
‘Are you the man from the YEB?’
His mother hasn’t paid he bill, and for a good reason.
They’ve cut her off. Mr O’Hara who lives next door
has kindly connected her to the meter in his house,
which is connected to the one in the next house.
‘I’m not from the YEB,’ I tell him. ‘I’m the priest.’
‘Hold on, I’ll find out if she’s in.”
‘We’re not Catholics’ he says when he comes back.
‘You’re down here as Catholics,’ I say, waving my book.
‘We used to be but now we’re not. Mum says she’s not in.’
‘That’s fine,’ I say. ‘Tell her I’m not here.’
From At the Races (Smith|Doorstop, 2009)
Alan Buckley chose ‘Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?’ by Kathryn Maris. Alan says, “As a rule – with a few honourable exceptions – I hate sestinas. But here the repetitions I normally find tiresome perfectly enact the speaker’s clenched-fist frustration at the relationship they’re in, while also creating a damn funny poem in the process. “[W]hat does one have to do to be in a book / around here” demands the poet, demonstrating just why she should be with a breathlessly brilliant single-sentence (and punctuation-free) poem. And like all great humorous poems, there’s something darker and sadder going on underneath, as the envoi shows us: “can’t you say I’m better than that woman[?]” .
Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?
How many times do I have to say
get rid of the books off the goddamn floor
do you have any idea how it feels
to step over books you wrote about her
bloody hell you sadist what kind of man
are you all day long those fecking books
in my way for 3 years your acclaimed books
tell me now what do you have to say
for yourself you think you’re such a man
silent brooding pondering at the floor
pretending you’re bored when I mention her
fine change the subject ask “Do I feel
like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel
like I need more medication it’s the books
don’t you see don’t you see it’s her
why don’t you listen to anything I say
and for god’s sake books on the floor
are a safety hazard remember that man
from Cork who nearly died fine that man
fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel
you’re getting the point the point is that a floor
is not an intelligent place for books
books I have to see and books that say
exactly where and how you shagged her
what shirt she wore before you shagged her
I can write a book too about some man
better still about you I can say
something to demonize you how would you feel
about that ha ha why don’t I write a book
about how I hoover your sodding floor
and how you’ve never once hoovered your floor
why can’t I be a muse why can’t I be a “her”
what does one have to do to be in a book
around here do I have to be dead for a man
to write me a poem how do you think it feels
to be non muse material can’t you say
you feel for me what you felt for her
can’t you say I’m better than that woman
can’t you get those books off the floor?
From God Loves You by Kathryn Maris (Seren, 2016)
Read ‘Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?’ by Kathryn Maris on the Guardian
Photo by Kate Kozyrka on Unsplash