Arranging the Blaze by Chad Sweeney
(Anhinga Press, Tallahassee, FLA, 2009)
Parable of Hide and Seek by Chad Sweeney
(Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine, 2010)
Chad Sweeney has done a great deal of important, useful work for poetry. As an editor of Parthenon West, he brought out several interesting new writers and lively work from ones already known. As a writer and performer of poetry readings, he has brought new life to many pages and occasions. Sweeney’s last two books provide an object lesson in style and image. Arranging the Blaze (Tallahassee: Anhinga, 2009) is another great contribution to poetry. Some of its gestures are stylized in ways too familiar from poetry’s workshopping schools, but the perceptivity that seems always present here strikes fresh image and phrase often enough to keep us reading. In its wording, it reads worlds. When these poems say “Words are everything / we own” (20), they are not espousing a credo or denying the chances life gives outside of words for owning up to it; these poems are owning up to the opportunity to show words’ true place in how we handle the world.
There’s good evidence of this in how one particular word root reverberates in these poems. The word “tremolo” by pathetic fallacy might put me in mind of a setting on an old amp I used to use, but its way of setting an exact tone in the title poem of this volume is a reminder of the amplification a mot juste can give to a lived moment as it is passed song-like to others.
how old is it
beside the sea—to be still
making me with its arc,
its sand, its small portion
of space worn about it like a shawl––tremolo
in blue-green radial symmetries
of the beach grass. (24)
This tremolo re-surfaces in a poem called “Oklahoma” for the poet’s home state:
Grandma was afraid of snakes
but nothing else. She killed
rabbits with her bare hands.
Her voice drew a line between us
like the surface of a story. (34-35)
The title of the first section of Arranging the Blaze is “Genealogy”; that central concept gets a fresh twist in section two, “Of Memory and Innovation,” where Oklahoma is found. The deeper story is perhaps most fully hinted at in a poem called “The Great Poem,” which blatantly declares that the
great poems of the earth
are written by the earth
in leaf and hoof and birth.
The poem casts a noble genealogy there towards its end, but it opens with a pompous person instead, an image of the ego, that frames this greatness with some irony. The poem depicts him as “a fat man in a palanquin” and then reveals that
The man is me
and I carry him.
And then we see his fault and his pain:
The King is jealous of what he loves
and I carry him. (39)
This thread of self-ironizing is elsewhere in the book, bluntly put in the admission that
by how much I love. (29)
Sweeney has given us a handle on the ambiguities of poetry and of love here, and he has approached their intersection made famous in Rilke’s fearsome angel.
The poems of Arranging the Blaze rise towards the honesty of that perception, but are clearly still working their way up. The beautifully incantatory “Is” exercises the copula in a fine way, but leaves the taste of an exercise behind. Other poems reveal too easily their sources in what were probably exercises, like “Fire Escape as Axis Mundi” coming from Lorca or “Dolores park” from Whitman (maybe via Olson). Sweeney’s other masters are approached more confidently in the third section called “Basho’s Robes,” where Matsuo is honored with playful variations and with the company of Zenshin Ryufu Philip Whalen. These poems swing wide before the book closes in again toward the writer’s personal history and poetic genealogy.
Another seemingly strong Irish/Cherokee writer that I knew shot out the heart of his achievement with a pistol, trying to erase some contradictions in his life. Sweeney’s embrace includes the contradictions and is not headed toward self-pity; his poem “The Mile” has the huge pity of tragedy in it, but his focus is on a choice made to face the music. It is supported by oddly resonant single images like “the holy / somnolence of a cowboy radio” (71) that open out into a real as hauntingly unreal as to include the dead.
death which lives even in the seed,
enthroned in the grain
The book ends in celebrations of life and love. By holding perceptions open wide and holding onto what its fourth section title calls the “Arc of Intention,” Sweeney’s 2009 book has earned the right to that. Arranging the Blaze has a strong sense of structure and an innovative sense of personal history.
Sweeney’s 2010 book from Alice James Books in Farmington, Maine, is less successful because of a conceptual weakness. Parable of Hide and Seek is as fun and serious as its title might imply, for awhile. All through the first section and half the next, the nouns seem as completely interchangeable as the pieces of page and image in a flipbook. One could take out the nouns and substitute others and basically have the same poems. This is fun for awhile, but the structures in which these nouns appear eventually reveal themselves as having little to offer them. It is just about when the book seems to need to confront its own strategies that there is some relief from this, as it does.
It finally arrives at this point when the prose poem “Shadowdogs” says, “All of us who’ve earned our shadows in the factories of blood––who knows what we are?” (30). That question is exact; those nouns are in place. And a few pages later, “Captain’s Log” admits the aesthetic:
The only art
is the opaque art
wind that stirs
in the sleeves (33)
For a dozen pages, we get more engaged by lines that sadly and ironically reflect on the art:
What will you shout into the tunnel
given this one opportunity
when we all promise to listen? (41)
The urge to write
was finally dead. Good riddance. (44)
At this point the book
settles into a foul mood
never to recover. (45)
But it does even though these attitudes and the possible attempts at irony in them spread the infection of grad school self-reflection, that murderer of many a poetic mystery. Another prose poem breaks through and sneaks in the true “Parable of Hide and Seek” even though the poem bearing that title is one of the dullest flipbook exercises; “In the Orchard” makes image count. It also has the zen quality of counting on an “abacus with one bead” while observing “migrant workers … napping” while “their children play hide-and-seek, passing in and out of time” (49). On the next page another prose poem reminiscent of those of Morton Marcus, “Lithuania,” carries this pointed illogic forward.
Deep inside the glacier, paleontologists discovered a prehistoric fire. They thawed it out to light their pipes and all the candles in our basilica. … I had the impression this fire beckoned us from the future and not the past. (50)
A book of such poems would be welcome, but unfortunately this book falls back into a syntax od substitutions. One phrase in a poem aptly called “Go to Sleep” says it all:
Dog as perfect metaphor
for itself. (61)
This could serve as an apt critique of our re-ified world. Here it only makes for a chuckle about the weakness of the poems that seek metaphors in the cheapest way, as a shopper would in selecting from relatively equal options.
Many of the poems in Parable of Hide and Seek could do with a little instruction from the book of Ol’ Ez about the adequacy of the natural object, and from the teaching of Robin Blaser about finding “the marvelous” in one’s everyday experience. One need look no further than Arranging the Blaze to see these teachings incorporated effectively; one might find their apotheosis in Lorca’s Poet in New York. Chad Sweeney, wise as he is about poetry’s needs, himself has said it in Parable’s penultimate poem, “Holy Holy”:
Give me courage
to fail publicly
in ordinary tasks,
me corner beams laboring
without grace. (71)
He knows the poet’s job, and it shows in these two books.
T.C. Marshall is a beautiful curmudgeon living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, chasing the seasons as they come to him, book by book. He pays the bills, accepts gifts, and teaches. Friend him on FaceBook to converse and to find out more.