Review of Arranging the Blaze
Anhinga Press, 2009
An Architecture
BlazeVOX Books, 2007
Both by Chad Sweeney
Review by Matthew Falk

Ever since Plato, poetry and math have rarely traveled together. Generally you don't expect to be sitting there reading something like "33 Translations of One Basho," a sequence of haiku-inspired short poems in Arranging the Blaze, and find the following: 

      y = mx + b

      x2 + y2 = 169


Nevertheless, there it is. Marianne Moore, who advocated incorporating "business documents and school-books" into poems, might approve of such inclusivity. If you're like me, the sheer surprise of it will make you smile. And then—reading on—almost immediately you'll smile again, at the section on the following page that goes, in its entirety, "thesis / antithesis / synthesis." 

Poets who know how to use humor effectively are perhaps not as rare as poets who like math, but they're rare enough to be noteworthy, and Chad Sweeney is such a poet. Another example: "Bear." The speaker of this short first-person narrative poem has an encounter with the title creature—it rises up "in a cloud of fur, / roar[ing] / in every language at once"—and attempts to defend himself by throwing various items at the bear: a dictionary, a calculator, credit cards, sacred texts including the Bhagavad Gita, the US Constitution, and "all Rilke's letters." Like some of Mark Strand's work, the poem's deadpan tone and hint of menace contrast with the absurdity of the action described, and thereby enhance its humor.

But don't go thinking fun and games are the orders of the day here. Although Sweeney, who lives in Kalamazoo and teaches at Western Michigan University, has wit to spare, his objective is a serious one: to describe the world in a new way and in the process to re-create it, to "make it new" as some old crank once said. As he writes in "Moving":

     This truck drags the road beneath us.

     By turning the wheel I swing

     the mountains

     into the rearview mirror.

     Words are everything

     we own.

Rather than merely portray the world, the poet actually helps to make it real by virtue of the power of his observation. So much depends upon "the eye sweeping over and fixing on that and that and that" ("Dolores Park"). And along with the eye, the ear comes too. The sound of Sweeney's words is invariably lovely. To cite just one instance, the poem called "Translation" contains these lines:

     this long wind from the sun

     looses the doors from their moorings 

     and carves in the olive grove

     a boy, a violin without strings. 

Take a moment now and read those couplets aloud. Go on, I'll wait. Hear how the open vowels moan, how the sibilants and fricatives accumulate like desert sands. Hear how the rhythm shifts subtly within and across each 3-footed line, building up to the final tetrameter. Acknowledge, while you're at it, the sly rhyme of “moorings” and "strings." Sweeney is a maestro of the music of language. 

Architecture, Goethe said, is frozen music. But An Architecture, Sweeney's book-length bricolage of fragments, is everything except frozen. Its 56 sections crackle with fiery flux and speak amongst themselves in secret code. Like many of the poems in Arranging the Blaze, this earlier work manufactures meaning out of startling juxtapositions and disjunctions.

Fully living up to an epigraph from Heraklitus, An Architecture repeatedly "scatters and gathers" its material. Images, objects, scraps of narrative are coerced into interacting with one another until they take on new properties, until unum oozes out of pluribus and vice versa. "The forest is the forest / of language, each tree stands // for something, elsewhere."

Chad Sweeney's third book, Parable of Hide and Seek, is forthcoming from Alice James Books. If past performance is any indication of the future, then we have good reason to anticipate Parable most eagerly. This is definitely a poet to watch.

You can catch Chad Sweeney on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loxfolEhYjU reading "The Piano Teacher" at the 2009 AWP Conference. Locally he will be reading from his work at Court Street Gallery's Last Friday event in Old Town Saginaw, on April 30 at 7 p.m. 

© Matthew Falk, 2010