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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 38 / 50





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Sweeney’s poetry is also interesting because it is another example of a legendary figure transgressing the boundaries placed by authors within At Swim-Two-Birds. Sweeney’s poetry is provided in English for the reader, translated by Flann O’Brien. As mentioned earlier, O’Brien was an Irish scholar, and Sweeney’s traditional Irish poetry is emulated and translated by the actual author of At Swim-Two-Birds for the reader’s understanding. Because Sweeney is, in this novel, a character of O’Brien’s, O’Brien is actually quoting his own scholarship through the mouth of a character on the lowest narrative level within his layered novel. This is a structural manoeuvre as subtle as it is complex. Both Finn and Sweeney are reflexive of O’Brien himself because they speak the words of O’Brien’s translations within the confines of his novel. O’Brien makes previously existing characters reflexive through this process, just as Finn does with Sweeney. Because Sweeney’s voice is heard through Finn’s telling of a tale, Finn is also reflexive of O’Brien. Finn, who proves so difficult to hold to one level of narrative, again surprises the audience by relating the exact words of an author whom he must by his own rules despise, and who Finn has already managed to rebel against by rising through the narrative levels and in some places hijacking the novel from its real author.

In stark contrast to both Finn’s and Sweeney’s "melodious" and traditional poetry is the work of Jem Casey, "Poet of the Pick" (168). Casey is thrown into the mix of characters to display the contrast between what is deemed traditional and therefore proper literature by those who would support Finn’s high ideals for mythic narrative and the popular fiction turned out by writers like Tracy and Trellis. Casey’s entry into the novel is placed directly before the group’s meeting with Sweeney. Sweeney is brought to the Red Swan with a group of Trellis’ characters, all the while answering their questions in his ancient poetic style, and directly in contrast to Casey. Casey also has his own literary theory, in line with the other writers that the reader encounters throughout At Swim-Two-Birds. When meeting the association of characters on their way to the Red Swan, Casey explains that the

stuff that I go in for ... is the real stuff. Oh, none of the fancy stuff for me. He spat phlegm coarsely on the grass.... I’ll always stand up for my own. It’s about the Workin’ Man that I was reciting my pome. (170-71)

Casey then proudly recites his work for his new cronies, "in a hard brassy voice, free from all inflexion" (172). The poem is a celebration of the working man, not surprisingly, in very simple rhyming stanzas of four lines, each finishing in a chant: "THE GIFT OF GOD IS THE WORKIN’ MAN" (172).

Jem Casey parallels Sweeney’s important metaphorical position in the novel; one can connect their relationship to that of the Pooka and the Good Fairy. It is no surprise that the two are introduced into the novel almost simultaneously. Both Sweeney and Casey are found in the forest; however, Sweeney is discovered in his traditional position as a feathered madman in a tree, and Casey is surprised by the group while defecating in some bushes. In his rough manner he describes his actions as "reciting a pome to a selection of my friends" (170). Casey’s and Sweeney’s metaphorical importance is reflected by their destination: the men are on their way to Orlick’s birth, an artist’s birth. Sweeney and Casey will, in a sense, battle for Orlick’s creative soul just as the Pooka and Good Fairy will, presenting two forms of artistry to influence literature’s newest Irish writer.

O’Brien highlights an overlooked narrative form in this lowest narrative plane:


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