Book Review

If All The World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton

top prize-winning poetry and emotional toll of lockdown ekes in

Sunday 29th March

Friday was my last day with definite work to do, so when I finished the day’s tasks I drank negronis in my kitchen while cooking stew and then cried for ages to my lover about virus fears, the emptiness of isolation when you’re already an ocean away from all your people and I also cried about the mediocre cat I had that I haven’t seen since 2017 and will never see again, Diana the cat. There are almost certainly pictures of her from long ago on this blog, as at this point Triumph of the Now has been going for longer than is justifiable, sensible or wise.

Diana the cat wasn’t a great cat, and – I think I’ve written this exact phrase in either Bad Boy Poet or my forthcoming sad book, the pleasure of regret – Cubby is a wonderful dog, so in the divvying up of pets that happened the last time I was technically homeless (will homelessness happen again? Yes, it will, if: the pandemic lockdown extends until June and the Canadian government don’t give me any free cash and the Mexican airline I have flights booked with in three weeks don’t give me a cash refund. Yes, that’s three ands. This pandemic may not make me suffer too much), not only did I “win”, but I won big.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t mourn for, I don’t grieve for, Diana the cat: she is likely still alive, but when she isn’t I won’t be informed unless I discover the fact though some absurd coincidence. 

I was crying for Diana the cat because in this upside-down, pandemic-era world, small things feel significant, and I now have the opportunity and the time to think about ideas and experiences that would probably best be forgotten.

There is time, now, for memory, for mourning, for loss. And, let’s be honest, I – like most of you – will be lucky if I don’t escape this pandemic without suffering any losses much more serious than the relationship-crack-filling cat I acquired a long time before Triumph of the Now, the website which is now the closest thing to a home that I have.

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This weekend, I read a book about loss.

Stephen Sexton’s debut collection, If All The World And Love Were Young, won the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Debut collection, a very competitive and impressive field featuring luminaries such as Jay Bernard, me (Scott Manley Hadley) and many other poets.

I’m not trying to be smug by always bringing up that I was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2019; I bring it up because I’m still in disbelief.

The same official Faber-published anthology containing excerpts of Sexton’s prize-winning collection also contains a 25-word piece by me, which has been singled out as being the shittest piece in the book by some other square who blogs about the books they read.

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It’s now the next morning, the 30th March, and I’m eating/drinking a smoothie and making another coffee before logging into my work emails for my penultimate day as a salaried employee with a job lol. I doubt I’ll have much to do, but I’m sure there’ll be something. And, then, once that’s done, I will read, walk Cubby, watch a film, read some more, write another blog, walk Cubby again and then make a risotto. That’s my plan for the day.

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If All The World and Love Were Young is a gorgeous book; that’s undeniable.

To be honest, though, it’s a bit too “poetic” for my personal tastes. Using the computer game Super Mario World as a loose framework, the collection describes childhood and landscape and memory with a big focus on loss and grief and the death of the narrator’s mother.

I wept reading this, and I enjoyed Sexton’s descriptions of place, including parts of the North of Ireland that I have visited, as well as landscapes and locations within the world of Super Mario that I have – digitally – visited.

I suppose a fair comparison for this book is that If All The World And Love Were Young is to Super Mario World what Ulysses is to The Odyssey: there are connections that are apparent and clear to a non-intellectual like myself (I’m referring to my attitude towards poetry, I’m not being self-effacing: I like to read and think, yes, but with poetry I want viscerality, I want pain, emotion, hurt, which there is PLENTY of here (as there is in Joyce tbf)), and there are likely more which I failed to notice.

Sexton is cleverer than me, his poetry is more impressive, more elaborate, more literary, than mine, and in its combination of high art, popular culture and riveting emotional exploration, to argue that it’s anything less than fucking brilliant would be pointless.

Honestly, it’s an honour that my name is included in the same contents list as the writer of verse like this. This is the kinda poetry that will likely live a long time: there is enough of trad poetry to it to get it onto syllabuses (i.e. there is sufficient “difficulty” to it that “analysis” tasks could be set focused on it), and there are enough references to video games and TV etc to capture the attention of people, like me, who like poetry but don’t warm to poems that refer to like nature and the Classics etc.

A great collection, recommended.

It’s a major publisher so no sales link. Buy it from your local independent bookstore once they’re all open again…

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oh oh oh – and I forgot. There’s a section at the end that lists all (or many) of the allusions and references in the text, just as a list. It’s phenomenal stuff and also a feature that will help with getting the book intellectualised enough to get teenagers and undergraduates taking highlighters to photocopies of it in un-air-conditioned rooms built during the 1960s.

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