In the Kingdom of Oblivion
wall of noise press, 2011
Reviewed By: Michael Keenan
John Sweet’s latest full-length collection of poetry, “in the kingdom of oblivion,” is described in the press release as a collection of e-chaps and previously unpublished poems, and it reads exactly like that. The poems don’t flow in an easy sequence that hold steady in rhythm and resonance, but instead read as a kind of excited mixtape in which the songs placed on the tape are vitally more important than the order of the songs or the sense of a finished product. And this isn’t a bad thing. What matters in a John Sweet poem is rendered line by line, stanza by stanza, and even, one could say, day by day.
Sweet writes a line of poetry the way someone else might make a sandwich or read the newspaper. No matter what horrendous event may happen in his personal life or the world at large, Sweet consistently returns to the moment of the poem’s creation. He doesn’t just write to survive, he writes to live.
In the poem “a sudden silence,” Sweet writes:
nothing but sunlight and blue
sky out here
trailers on the hills,
shadows of clouds, of minor gods
girl is burned beyond
recognition, but she lives
all roads lead to empty houses
Each of these stanzas, although quiet and simple, successfully hold their weight as stanzas and individual lines. The first one is deceivingly simple – with a closer look, however, we can see that it actually forms a kind of quick, minimalist painting. The first line begins with the word “nothing.” This absence of anything at all sits full of silence until the arrival of sunlight and the color blue. These two impressions of phenomena are not modified or described in any way, therefore they easily become abstractions reminiscent of brush strokes on a canvas. These brush strokes then carry over to the next line with “sky,” a word nearly as vast as its predecessor, “nothing,” and then finishes with a seemingly grounded,“here.” But where is here? Are we grounded in the moment or floating in empty space? (It’s these kinds of questions which gives Sweet’s work an ethereal texture which is wonderful to read and re-read.)
We’re given so much room to imagine within this stanza that it’s almost overwhelming. And with so few words in such a tiny area, it’s also like we’re given nothing at all. What we do end up with, though, is a kind of hazy canvas of implied impressions which define the already minimalist landscape of Sweet’s aesthetic sensibility. This is hard to do right and Sweet does it well. In fact, my favorite Sweet poems tend to seep into the realm of painting, especially the poem, “max ernst at the forest’s edge,” which references the extraordinary Surrealist painter, Max Ernst. In this poem, Sweet uses his imagination in ways that break away from the normative, logical thinking that is his safety zone. He begins the poem with, “in the end/you cut the dragon just to/watch it bleed,” and towards the middle he writes, “the sun screams silver/then white,” and then tells us that the air is “as cold as poison.” There are only a few poems like this one in the collection, but to me, these strangeifications read as the moments when Sweet severs the ties with his difficult life and an unlovable world and, if only for a moment, lives in the glory and freedom of a Max Ernst painting.
In the next stanza of “a sudden silence,” Sweet seems to be looking out a window and simply listing what he sees until the quiet but imaginative leap of “shadows of clouds, of minor gods,” which introduces a different shape and energy into the poem. One of my favorite qualities of these poems is how Sweet can deftly shift the direction of a poem without us realizing that anything has changed. The next line, “slow collapse,” is like a balloon deflating, and acts as a smooth transition into the sudden information about a girl who has been burned beyond recognition, but who is still alive.
John Sweet’s interior landscape, and the doubt, anger, and fear which reside there, is the palpitating heart of this collection. The girl who has undergone intensive agony, who has been burned so terribly she can no longer be recognized by anyone she used to know or love, is clearly a metaphor for Sweet’s personal experience of life. This is why it’s so easy for him to continue the poem with “all roads lead to empty houses.” He knows what happens next – in life and in the poem – because he’s been there, and is there right now.
The suffering girl, as a metaphor and a real girl, also haunts Sweet simply because she represents the answers that he can’t seem to wrench out of a consistently wicked world. He tries to reconcile his personal atrocities and the more universal miseries that take place in the world, but, excluding a few key breakthroughs and epiphanies, he can’t seem to escape the overriding experience that “all roads lead to empty houses.”
In the poem, “in the kingdom of christ,” he writes
(remembered saying I love you but
but not to who and not how it brought you here)
In short, Sweet finds that everything falls apart. Like everyone else, he seeks to find something, anything, that makes this alright. In this collection, at least, he doesn’t find it. But what he does find, despite the poor turnout and the repeated disappointments, is the next poem.
In “bathed in sorrow, bathed in oblivion,” he writes
and then the stars shining
clearly in the spaces between clouds,
and then the silences before
the cautious optimism
of slow breaths
no hope for the future,
but still the desire to see it.
In entering Sweet’s individual poems, we take part in a kind of waltz of uncertainties, a shaky present of despair and doubt, which, as soon as it’s mildly brightened by an experience of hope, is just as soon stamped out by reality. But what we see in the above lines is that Sweet hasn’t truly given up hope for a better life and a better world. The deliberate indentation of “maybe” attests to this hope and to the better existence he can’t help but believe is possible.
This isn’t a popular thing to say these days, but John Sweet is an honest poet. We, as readers, can trust him. He’s not fucking with us. He doesn’t hide behind the language he uses, and he doesn’t turn away from his own life-experience. In fact, the only complaint I have about Sweet’s work is that at times he tells us too much about his exact thoughts, instead of allowing us to simply experience his well-crafted lines and images. He confronts his demons on the page almost every day, reaches a kind of solid ground, turns on himself, turns on the world, has a minor realization about the meaning of life, only to return to the same tension and unease that began the poem. His poetry is a map of how the mind works. We return to the same idea and the same memory and the same question, even once the question has been answered. This is because the question needs to be answered again, right now. As long as John Sweet is writing the next poem, he’s alive, and so are we.
both electronic and paper-based, since 1990.
EXILE, among others.