In an Internet-based world, thankfully, there is still poet-to-poet news. We read a book so good we have to tell somebody. We phone another poet and read poems aloud until both of us are moved to silence. Then the work begins to spread in the old way, an excitement, a brush fire. This is what I hope will happen to Chad Sweeney’s Little Million Doors: An Elegy (Nightboat Books).
The poems, which read like one long poem, are an elegy to Sweeney’s father, yet the speaker’s identity is fluid, and finding who and what turns out not to be the destination.
Are these the shapes
I loved I
Study the faces from inside them
The spirit wanders lost in formlessness, in timeless time, in memories and shapes not his own. The language of the poem breaks time, names elude their objects, language—which occurs in time—is stopped and started at odd intervals, a grammar of memories, everything unfinished, not begun.
I was murdered I was
Stillborn I died old
I tried on these robes in
Light reposed over patterns
The speaker travels in unknown nearnesses that might be “Abyss in the shape / Of a maple leaf.” “The days come floating / Away from me” in the back and forth rhythms of this journey.
For us, alive, this is a taboo world. Here, it’s a stew of brilliant, bewildering shapes, sleeves, images with no explanations. Instead of making statements, Sweeney’s speaker asks and is never answered. In one tender passage, the speaker remembers his living self: “I would carry my body / all the way back // I would carry / The eyes of it I would / Carry the hands of it / I would wash // The skin I would / Bear the feet I would draw // The blood out long and shine it.” The soul tries to understand what it is between life and death. “Death it could be asked / Innumerable / Shadows inside me / Whatever the opposite of lightning / Hangs // Unbearably above the barley field.”
Sweeney is not afraid of beauty. In shattered, crystalline phrases the spirit moves, asking, “Did I grow a shadow in this did I belong // To table and to roses / A woman // Leads / The skeleton of a dog // Her mouth floats by praying // Beneath her eyes where time / Gusts.” But out of the shattering there’s a movement from bewilderment toward an understanding of union with all things. “I was murdered, I was / Stillborn I died old,” and “Under grapevines / The wind a flower I relived // My death / Or someone’s // Here / Language opens at the wound.”
As the poem progresses, again and again Sweeney refers to language: “was I // Married in the soft sleep / Of marrow I can’t explain / Children see me // Inside them I watch / Language move the year.” He is his father’s spirit, he is inside the children, and everything else, and he is also the living poet watching language grow under his own hand.
One of the rewards of death would be a release from human suffering. But poetry is for the living, not the dead, and in the powerful central section of the book, Sweeney’s protagonist spirit chooses to suffer. “I let myself want something,” the spirit says. Without suffering, the poem would have less gravitas, less duende. So the poet breaks and breaks the language, the expectations, the narrative, and even the accrued clarities of the journey so far. We (poet, spirit, and reader) enter a realm of “gamblers // The dice of them each // Outcome true to love / The wars they killeachother // They put antlers on fences.” The joined words, “killeachother” catch and gag in the back of the mouth. This poem should be read aloud or whispered, so the rhythms and sounds are fully experienced. And in this section, one of the most powerful and terrible moments in the book, the speaker cries out. As he moves towards what he will see, language fractures more and more, then clarifies suddenly:
Eggs the sun unlay my voice
Moves beyond me across
The water has
Lost its way I am bound
To watch murder in the old
Country a girl
Sold for her heart
Its million red bells
The spirit cries out, and then tries to recover in a wild questioning and whirling of language, as if he’s been thrown into hell. “Sold for her heart” is a gorgeous and scathing poem about the crushing of innocence and the leap, then, to protectiveness: “On a pillow yes I would / Place the voice I would // Wear the lungs / To which orders of musics // Have I belonged / To ships to valleys the thought of me dilates // An iris yes in / Ripples of mustard // Field and trash heap / Lets // Crows by crowlight into milk / Which // Language is this shaping the coffins / A white heat.” Obsessed and tormented by what he sees, the spirit falters and doubts.
There’s another place in the sequence where Sweeney speaks incandescently of the loss of his physical body. So much is indicated in so few words. It’s hardly bearable:
Inside me the canyon
Intimate if ravines a
Of bear and one red
Branch I touch my
The ripple the root of it here
Is thought is memory
Woodgrain the seasons to come I
Watch myself inside myself in
This is where, reading Little Million Doors for the first time, I started shouting, I wept. Poetry of this order is rare and necessary. In a world where we are longing, I think, for clarity, for spirit, Chad Sweeney has given us this opening.