Stephen Sexton is inspired by classic works of art in a captivating poetry collection that leaves the reader to 'create their own metaphorical trail of breadcrumbs'

Immersing the reader in art, history and the depths of his imagination, Belfast poet Stephen Sexton has created a captivating collection in his debut poetry pamphlet, Oils.

Featuring 16 poems, which include cartoon characters, dreams, classic works of art, an atheist and a Young Bean Farmer, Oils draws the reader into places that he or she might otherwise never think to venture. These are poems to make you ponder – to read and re-read, savouring the language and reflecting on the mysterious subjects at hand.

Published by the Emma Press, Oils evokes a rich tapestry of images. Sexton, who is currently completing his PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, breathes new life into renowned paintings in the 'The Deaths of Orpheus'. He weaves a line from a Van Gogh letter into another poem, 'Long Reach', while the spinach-munching sailor, Popeye, is our narrator in 'Elegy for Olive Oyl'.

In her introduction to the collection, poet Annie Freud comments on the 'extraordinary richness of meaning' that Sexton manages to convey in his work. His language invites the reader to explore further, subsequently sparking off the excitement that only comes from reading the work of a truly accomplished writer. 

Such is the scope of the poems included – from the haunting 'The Death of Horses', to the more satirical 'Credit History', and the innocence of 'Subimago' – that Oils quickly hooks you with its ambition. It brings wit, melancholy and irony to the table, blurring the lines of what we think and know and dream to great effect.

Sexton also uses ekphrasis – the description of a visual work of art – in his accomplished sequence, 'The Deaths of Orpheus', cleverly paying homage to three great works of art in his poems. 'A Flattering Look' depicts a girl carrying the head of Orpheus after Gustave Moreau's 'Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on His Lyre', interestingly written from the perspective of the mythological Greek poet and musician:

‘It made me so sad knowing she
was going to bury me here among the lemons
and the olives, with my lyre, in some lonely
adventureless grave.’

Meanwhile, the remaining parts of the sequence show us 'Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus' (after the John Williams Waterhouse painting), with 'Red' (after 'The Death of Orpheus' by Antonio Garcia Vega) capturing the final death:

‘the tenses of my was streak like thinned paint.
My body resigns itself on this plinth
as a treasure for the vultures.’

Part of the inherent appeal of this collection is that Sexton’s poems always invite the reader to delve deeper. 'House without a Face' may seem less opaque:

‘immaculate cast, four square windows,
one oblong door
like a child’s line-drawing
that has no emphasis on through.’

Like all of Sexton’s poems, however, this piece layers meaning upon meaning, weaves intricacies deftly into the words for us to find – or not, as the case may be.

The fascinating 'Schematic for Atheism from a Child’s Watch', meanwhile, almost begs to be picked apart like the watch in the poem: ‘like a sliced boiled egg/on the walnut table’. 'Because' whispers of a love that is ‘large and unmanageable’, while 'Elgy for Olive Oyl' gently ties up the collection with its melancholic ruminations.

Quite rightly chosen by the Poetry Book Society as their 2014/15 Winter Pamphlet Choice, Oils is the work of a poet who, as Freud says, is certainly someone 'to get excited about'. Sexton previously won the inaugural Funeral Services Northern Ireland National Poetry Competition, and has been published in The Open Ear, Abridged, and as part of the Lifeboat series of readings in Belfast. 

If you enjoy poetry that leads you into the woods and leaves you to create your own metaphorical trail of breadcrumbs, then Oils is perfect reading material. If, however, you prefer poetry that hand-feeds, then you might think that these poems are not for you. I would suggest that even the most novice reader of poetry will enjoy this collection, however. Like many seemingly ‘difficult’ works, it can ultimately be enjoyed simply for the vivid language and imagery it contains.

Oils is out now, published by The Emma Press.