October 30, 2010

Review by James BentonParable of Hide and Seek by Chad Sweeney

PARABLE OF HIDE AND SEEK
by Chad Sweeney

Alice James Books
238 Main Street
Farmington, ME 04938
ISBN 978-1-882295
2010, 88 pp., $15.95
www.alicejamesbooks.org

The Eiffel Tower makes a kind of appearance: glass is a conduit; houses, doors, and tunnels frame it; and music divides night from day in this remarkable collection of sonically rich and imagistically arresting poems. Page after page, I found myself making little gasping sounds in response to Sweeney’s deft exercises in the field of negative space. The repeating motifs include glass (six appearances), houses (eight appearances), doors (five), the division of night and day (five), and music (seven). These unify the collection subtly, though they are not the main point. Instead, they serve as framework, or as the wake by which we know of the passage of a ship.

Things are not what they seem here, and that is by design. Images defy conventional treatment, their metaphorical usage often occupying an ambiguous role in the implication complex between tenor and vehicle. OK, that deserves some explanation, because watching Sweeny turn the visual and the abstract on its head turns out to be a singular pleasure. We often read poems wherein the metaphor works in one direction: from a signifier outward toward its signified through a set of point-by-point correspondences. This collection complicates the process, however. Vehicle not only informs tenor, but tenor also informs vehicle in a bi-directional dynamic like a river pushing and pulling against the ocean tide. Take for example “Diurne,” which is quoted here in its entirety:

I listen to my heartbeat
on the radio, 89.6 A.M.,
a prolapse then a whimper.

It’s fear and something else—
black milk,
static from a sermon.

My house arrives
through the internet
its corners landing everywhere.

to be red night
watched carefully by Bedouins,
to be a comma

between two really important
clauses.
A man in a parking lot

has a feeling of dread.
In the memory of that day
I can’t keep the wind it its box.

Everything in this poem is inverted: milk is black; a.m. and p.m. conflate with AM and FM; the house arrives through the internet, not the other way around; the heartbeat is prolapsed. Is it a vase, or are they faces? Field and ground trade places in a slippery oscillation, which forms both the content of the book and its method. Yet Sweeney is most interested in “the comma/between two really important/clauses,” the zone between a thing and its counterpart that defines two simultaneous yet disparate identities. Poem after poem reveals its core by writing its remnants so that the reader comes to understanding indirectly. When that understanding lands, the effect is completely satisfying.

This is not to suggest that craft overwhelms content, rather that craft and content operate sympathetically with one another toward an ontological center that exceeds them both. The result is a collection of fresh, often brilliant images that draw the reader back to the beginning of the poem and then deep into the poet’s unique vision of the world. Examples are everywhere. From “The Piano Teacher”:

A music box wound too tightly will explode,
playing its song all at once.

From “Wind Beneath the Skin”:

Weather watches me for signs
of change.

From “Another Novel”:

I try Roshachs

but the doctor only shows me
silhouettes of famous gangsters.

And best of all, from the title poem:

I hid as a darkness
diminished by a torch.

It is easy enough for a poet to offer up bland theoretical statements concerning the relationship between field and ground in poetry, or to rehash some Derridian commonplace, break it up into lines, and call it deep. It is quite another thing to generate fresh and startling imagery and to tell compelling stories using language that adroitly performs these linguistic relationships without resorting to pseudo-philosophical jabber. This book successfully avoids pedantry altogether, removes the focus of the poetry from the writer, and turns it outward onto the world. The (now) old guard has finally given way to a poet, and perhaps even to a way of writing lyric poetry, unencumbered by self-consciousness and self-importance. These poems do not talk about language theory; they put theory to direct, practical use.

Sweeney’s witness to fatherhood, “Little Wet Monster,” is a stunning departure from the ordinary, and an excellent example of theory put to practice. How many poems have we all read in which the speaker celebrates the birth of a beloved child? And how many of those poems escape the pitfall of sentimentality? Surely the odds favor sentimentality, but not here. Beginning with the title, three short words, the poet gives us the visceral and the repugnant tempered by tenderness. It could be merely ironic, but wait. Seen in the context of field and ground in which the whole collection participates, he also gives us the potentially sentimental held to account by the visceral. These tiny remnants of language supply a complete narrative before the poem even begins. The poem itself straddles the dividing line between the two emotions without taking up permanent residence in either. It is a verbal tour de force. Tempted as I am to quote from this poem, individual lines don’t do justice to the whole, and frankly, the reader is best served by experiencing this poem first hand.

The final two poems, “Holy Holy,” and “Loggia Document,” serve as a kind of ars poetica to the collection. The first tends toward the overt, proclaiming:

For me speech is
a way of touching,
a rummaging under
for what’s not meant […]

This helps us know how to read lines like, “Everywhere I went/the maps were more accurate/than the land,” which is to say the poet asks us to participate with him in the Derridian, not as an intellectual exercise, but as the genuine experience of the real world.

The second closes the collection in what is by now a familiar performative voice:

I’ve knelt in the twilight of idols.
I’ve chipped my teeth
on the bright water.

After spending an afternoon immersed in Parable of Hide and Seek these chipped teeth amount to a well-earned celebration.