Archive for November, 2010

Chad Sweeney — Parable of Hide and Seek

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 1, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Chad Sweeney’s The Parable of Hide and Seek balances itself (as its title suggests) between the open and the hermetically sealed, between that which is hidden and that which is sought. Sweeney employs careful and lush images informed by his natural surrealist bent, and moves many of these images beyond simply evocations of the world of the subconscious. They also inhabit a more earthly mysticism that at times seems to border on social commentary in the manner of how Bei Dao and the Misty poets would seem to comment on Chinese politics in the midst of their beguiling images. Like a good parable, the poems seem to nearly deliver a message. Like a dysfunctional parable, they also meander through a world of smells like a distracted dog. Not a pit bull, mind you, more of a bemused Airedale. Stripped down and simple dog lines. But being caught between Charles Simic and Bei Dao is not a bad place to find oneself when writing a parable of hide and seek. Sweeney initiates a search to ensure the openness of a reader’s interpretation will eventually find a mark while simultaneously turning off the light on the exit sign so that the same reader will not make an easy escape. There is room enough to ponder what essentials are hidden in his lines.

Another aspect of The Parable of Hide and Seek that I admire is that it doesn’t follow the pack mentality in organizing the manuscript. This is just a bunch of poems (like a pack of baseball cards). You open it up and there could be any number of topics or themes involved. Sure there are only baseball players in there (no soccer players left over from the World Cup), but it is refreshing to see that this collection seems to be organized around the principle of just putting together a bunch of really good poems that stand alone by themselves and are not organized into some cute thematic collection. It reminds one of the good old days when people wrote books of poems that were driven by a perceived compulsion to be written, not written as though they fulfilled an assignment from the marketing department of a university press. For this reason, Alice James Books should be given credit for publishing a book that is outside the standard prize-winning book formula. You know the drill. Three sections organized according to some loose sub-theme which are tied together by the umbrella title concept. It is poetry manuscript organization according to the precepts of making a Toto album. A very contrived contraption, and it has me swearing off most prize-winning books of late because I know there will be one or two poems that are worth reading from each section and the rest will be filler designed to round out that section of the manuscript. The “hit-makers” prevail.

Or to put a finer point on this problem, David Alpaugh put it this way in his essay “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?”:

Above all, keep in mind that poetry collections must be novelistically structured. Before Emily Dickinson’s heap of 1,775 untitled poems could be competitive she would have to discard 1,700 of them; give each of the remaining 75 a title; sort them into three thematic batches, each with a section title and epigraph; and come up with a catchy “umbrella” title (Wild Nights might be a hit with student-screeners). This procedure is so de rigueur these days it’s as if there were a bumper sticker slapped on every collection, boasting: “My other book is a novella.”

The pleasure of dipping into The Parable of Hide and Seek is that one can actually dip into the book (the way one dips into Simic and Bei Dao) without any concern that you have missed several steps along the path of the narrative arc or some other similar organizing principle. You just dive in and begin to enjoy. An anti-organization. An organization that defies organization . . . or maybe it is just a distracted Airedale.

Sweeney related to me at a reading he did in Sacramento when he read some poems from this manuscript that many of these poems were written during a three week window where they more or less ”arrived.” A mysterious Rilkean process. Like he was a capacitor that was suddenly discharged. [Unfortunately, my son stepped on the laptop that was used to record the reading and disabled the hard drive or there would be audio files available from that reading.] The general simplicity that Sweeney puts in play in this collection makes this assertion believable. The images that prevail in the poems are ones that never seem labored or forced. A childlike innocence is evoked — as though the speaker is arriving at a whole new world that has exploded in front of him. This manner of illumination is textbook surrealism, but it is not as pointed as Aimé Cesaire who is trying to forge a whole new Caribbean identity (like in “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”). The commentary is downplayed much more than that.

In “Of Empire” Sweeney hints at the notion that we are all assassins of a nature (through sins of omission?) because we are complicit in participating in the same subconscious impulses of threat and danger. This depiction of an almost Cold War-inspired spy regime is a more psychologized treatment of international politics than an overt re-mythologizing of the political scene which one might find in Bei Dao’s work at the height of his involvement at Tiananmen. Sweeney flavors his poem-scapes as absurd adventures into Existenz.

Of Empire

An assassin is sneaking along the fence.
His breath sounds like scissors
clipping dahlias.

One eye
is trained to sleep by day,
the other by night.

The assassin doesn’t recall
who hired him.
He doesn’t know which death wants him

at the end of this sentence.
That’s why his gloves are white
and his sleeping eye sees

what you see.

The purposefulness (purposelessness?) in the shades of imagery and associative moves (which can almost always be found even in the most elusive of image displays in poetry . . . unless one has arrived at complete image wallpaper without any charge or connotation) seems to exist in a sphere devoid of historical continuity or political intrigue. The innocence that marks these poems as separate from that realm of great import provide a signal that the reader is in a space that is detached from any larger framework. However, that said, Sweeney is concerned with those topics in the manner that he invokes them through the objects he places in the poems. Assassins that appear in the poems hint at a larger threatening world, but the almost childlike drift that is felt in so many of the poems has the reader viewing these objects as tabula rasa agents. They appear without any recognizable intention. In applying a known agency to these poem-objects which appear, the reader finds himself enmeshed in a game of ascribing meaning, a game in which Sweeney has set the rules. He asks, “Do you know these figures?” and almost begs for an “unknowing” of them. The figure of “the perpetrator,” “the assassin,” “the army general,” “the crucifix” is unmasked.

Is this a political act? I think it is. Sweeney is scrambling the data banks and asking the reader to reset them at time t = “childlike aura.” The ethos of surrealism has always been more to promote a visionary stance rather than to advance a critical position.

I bring this point up about surrealism and the political only because many of surrealism’s detractors point out its deficiency in not relating to anything of this world and therefore being pretty much outside the discussion of real-time social relations. Of course, as Cesaire and Senghor have illustrated, this isn’t always the case. As part of the Negritude movement, they could never dare to let their writing venture too far from the political moment. After all, both were important politicians in their respective countries, a development (for literary figures) that has been lost here in the U.S.

Most of the time Sweeney’s poems work their open-ended magic because they don’t illustrate any ideological fervor. The world is shaken up like a snowglobe and all of its assembled pieces come back down to the ground (of its own isolated world) in a different place. It’s refreshing to see how Sweeney shuffles the deck of his various objects. One really feels the undertow of the subconscious.

In certain poems in The Parable of Hide and Seek, however, the “take” on the experience is more present. In “The Factory” the poem-scape is much more menacing. The “commentary” on modern life is present. “The Factory” implies its message of brutish, absurd industry. Business and trade seem to be the targets.

The Factory

Each cage has a unique serial number.
I still remember the first.
I inspect the corners.
I wash away the copper dust.

We refrigerate each cage for one month.
We bury it in lime.
We sleep three nights inside each cage.
We hang it from the eaves.

We lost a tour group inside a cage.
We built a stairwell to find them again.
We lost a bull inside a cage.
We had to open all the ledgers.

Once for an hour the sun
was caught inside our cage.
I swear it, the colors changed,
wind paused for the outcome.

One key is a rib.
One key is a cypress.
One key is a hammer.
One key is a sound.

It takes one year to grow a cage.
Long enough to plan an argument.
Long enough to teach a child
to weave clothing from the keys.

One key is a street.
One key is a cardinal.
One key is an aura.
One key is a wedge.

We line up the keys and paint them with water.
We spank each cage until it cries.
We export our cages everywhere.
Packed in saw dust. Packed in wool.

I inspect the locks.
I wipe away the fire.
One cage is a method.
One cage is a story.

In this he seats himself as one who points to his contemporary age and rehearses its offenses (the way in which Bei Dao is commenting on the autocratic aspects of Tiananmen China). It is hardly surprising that the target of an American poet is not the government per se, but that of the lord of our times, the all-encompassing and oppressive economy and the pressure to produce something of exchange value. In this poem, too, Sweeney manages to provide an aesthetic critique on “narrative lockdown,” the prison that is narrative form in writing.

Sweeney has never been one to tell a narrative completely straight. In his previous collection Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga, 2009) the aim of that collection is a kind of re-mythologizing of himself and his personal story. One never puts together the pieces to the point where one can actually say what it is that is going on in Sweeney’s life, from point A to point B, but the characters that appear are clearly part of it. Pieces of the puzzle push forward in order to be recognized, but then he moves towards a more or less surreal treatment of these elements and the reader’s doubt is cast in full again. It is an autobiography of the hidden and shaded self. For a reader who desires a more earnest presentation, there will be a letdown, a failure to bring order, but not before there is a good bit of piecing together who Sweeney is. For a brief sample of this kind of elusive and evocative fare, read “Bear”. [Reading for Southeast Review]

In The Parable of Hide and Seek the manner in which Sweeney weaves his subconscious magic over the reader is in the kinds of simple objects he invokes. These are the kinds of figures that might exist in parables (so Sweeney’s diction is right on target for this collection). The figures seem to emerge from out of a timeless place. There are very few references to modern day figures. Occasionally, one sneaks in: a Kmart, Volkswagens, a hubcap, an overpass, a shipyard, decibels, tool belts, phone books. Often the kinds of figures invoked are cats, flowers, tombstones, clouds, the stuff of folk songs. More often the figures are more specific and unusual: hangmen, caryatids, a megaphone, Rohrschachs, a briar patch, a coloratura. The cumulative effect is that the reader is journeying through a very old and unusual territory, a Transylvania of the page. The Brothers Grimm meet the Parisian cafés where Breton hung out. I like the expansiveness of these poems. Things happen, but they are not readily defined by social meaning. It feels like a message is arriving, one that a child should be able to understand and put to use in his/her life. But that easy take-home message never arrives.

Hanging there, however, are interpretations that a reader can tease into larger significance. The parable is written for the adult as much as it is to instruct the child. Perhaps the meaning that becomes swollen around Sweeney’s figures in these poems is due to the fact that the items he invokes are largely those of a different time, outside of the press of the urban situation circa 2010. These are not poems that are written with an eye towards newspapers. I get the feeling that they penetrate the subconscious so well because these figures have old souls. They are pregnant with possibility.

What would it mean to write a parable out of items rescued from newspaper reports? Could it be done? Could a reader float as freely between figures if they were charged with more contemporary figures, ones that play out in a modern society: insurance companies, nursing homes, Congressional sub-committees, social networking websites, enterprise zones, car bombs, etc. Could these items exist in parables? Is the modern parable an oxymoron? If such a thing as a modern parable could be wrought, would it necessarily be seen as doing more pointed social commentary or could it float freely between easily recognizable hitching posts for signification? Finally, what statement does it make when one engages one’s current political moment in a way that embraces primarily the visionary?

Maybe the only way to undo the damage of one’s political moment is to re-imagine it as the surrealists prefer to do. Surely this is an abdication of sorts as one cannot only imagine the way to the next incarnation of our times.

Sweeney seems willing to do more than just paint Dali-esque portraits in several poems in The Parable of Hide and Seek. One of the eeriest of his commentaries is

The Warden and His Keys

The warden demanded new towers, new halls and more keys for his collection. The workers built until they ran out of materials. Keep going, he said. The workers built two more years until they ran out of

prisoners. Now you are the prisoners, he said. Each morning they escaped in order to arrive at their jobs guarding each other, then snuck back in at night to sleep. None had been happier. They grinned and plotted, tapped secret messages on jail bars. Quiet! shouted the warden, dipping his keys in brandy.

Again, the theme of being held captive by one’s life (and in America this means employment) circumstances appears as the great damnation. A pervasive incarceration is suggested. One is held hostage to one’s work. I can’t imagine Bei Dao lodging a more apt critique of the current American scene. Sweeney’s amped-up and twisted Kafka strain (where one is incarcerated without even suspecting as much) is a poem that might only be penned by an American sensibility that understands the bittersweet attitude towards work most Americans possess. Now we just need poems that suggestively take on the role of a monolithic media, ones that take on the absurdities of major societal institutions such as education and political elections. Something tells me that Sweeney will be aiming at these and other weak points of American democracy in the future, noting how these institutions are intertwined with every aspect of our existence, lending it the flavor of the baroque absurd found in a country that can produce on one hand Wild Turkey bourbon and the Tootsie Roll.