Poetry News

Los Angeles Review of Books Considers the Plays of Joyelle McSweeney

By Harriet Staff

Joyelle McSweeney

At Los Angeles Review of Books, Matthew Buckley Smith provides an insightful look into the dramatic and poetic works of Joyelle McSweeney, beginning with thoughts on horror films and how such films could serve as a lens through which one might ponder McSweeney's oeuvre: "McSweeney’s best work, like a great horror film, calls that knowledge up from the depths to the shuddering, twilit surface. This is the monster her marsh-black plays drag gibbering onto the stage." Smith spends much time with, arguably, McSweeney's most famous work Dead Youth, or, The Leaks, but ropes in other writing like the poetry collection Percussion Grenade and the short play The Warm Mouth, and argues theatrical performance is the vehicle best suited to realizing McSweeney's vision:

For her part, McSweeney composes in a brutally subtractive, deconstructive mode. She seems at times to be attempting to paint the known world entirely by negation. Her plays are filled with harrowing speeches and horrifying spectacles, and she seems to hold precious little faith in the world as we know it. In the short play “The Warm Mouth,” a Beckettian retelling of “The Bremen Town Musicians,” the main characters are identified as “some roadkill, a starving boy, a murdered girl, a shot-up dog, the suppurating shinbone and the impaled egg all tucked up inside the Warm Mouth.” These discarded, maimed, or overlooked specters reach their narrative climax simply by making themselves visible, while the character of the poor young man who sees them is transfixed with horror and eventually transformed. One needn’t reach too far to imagine McSweeney wishes something like his experience for us.

Properly speaking, McSweeney’s plays don’t have plots. Things happen and characters voice desires, but the two are seldom bound together — and certainly not in any long, shapely chains of action. Structurally, the plays most resemble Aeschylean tragedies and medieval morality plays. Much of the dialogue comes in long expository or lyric speeches, and the characters seem less like psyche-possessing individual beings than gestures, figures, or rhetorical devices.


I think, however, there’s a deeper reason that theatrical performance might suit her peculiar designs. For centuries, the expression “a play in verse” would have raised eyebrows for sheer redundancy. What exactly, one might have asked, is a play not in verse? Yet today the phrase may as well be an oxymoron. There’s Broadway-style musical theater or opera, but one would seldom if ever refer to them as verse. As things stand, what is called poetry and what is called theater exist today almost entirely as separately declining forms. From time to time, playwrights produce theatrically competent plays with dialogue broken into lines and poets produce prosodically competent poems with lines broken into dialogue. But, excepting the brave efforts of Michael Frayn, Glyn Maxwell, David Yezzi, and a few others, the former tend toward metrical indifference and the latter toward dramatic inertia. McSweeney has elected neither of these options, exactly. Despite her wild range, McSweeney is not merely experimenting in genres. Nor is she honing one creative knife against another. The more accurate account, I think, is simply that she’s spreading like water. As she encounters genre after genre, she isn’t changing to meet the constraints of the form. She’s filling formal constraint until it gives way like a plate glass window.

You'll want to head to LARB to read on for sure.