Friday, March 12, 2010

Jennifer K. Sweeney's "How to Live on Bread and Music"

Just finished reading Jennifer K. Sweeney's How to Live on Bread and Music, this year's winner of the James Laughlin Award for a second book of poems. The poems about siblings, in the first section, are not memorable in either image or music. The long poem "The Listeners" that makes up section two stretches a tolerable idea to intolerable length. One of its parts is about back-masking, a common enough subject rendered in a prosaic idiom:

The music teacher told her third graders
if you played "Strawberry Fields Forever" backwards
it would sing John is dead.
The children imagined her hand
steering the record counterclockwise
like witchcraft
revealing the secret warped message.

After five dead lines, the witchcraft simile sticks out like a fragment of a thumb. "Revealing the secret warped message" is a bathetic and redundant conclusion to the sentence. Sweeney continues by describing "scratchy" school movies:

After the credits rolled, the reels rewound.
Flowers sealed up, musicians laid their instruments
in their laps and the paper factory returned
its reams to the trees.

The flowers image lacks precision. The musicians image lacks interest. I like, however, the image of paper becoming trees again. There are such vivid moments of poetry dotting this book. They lure me to read on, only to be frustrated time and again.

Section three presents poems of places. Many of them are about natural places, forests, valleys and such, but the best poem here is urban. "5 O'Clock Poem" begins evocatively with "Descending the gray nudge of Market Street" and develops that nudge into a direction towards home. "The Arcata and Mad River Railway," which forms section four, uses a fragmented method deployed in a number of places in the book. But here the railway setting anchors the fragments, and they appear like lost and found objects along the tracks. 

The last section of the book is the strongest. "White Shadow" has genuine poetic power. It has density of thought and image, and its tercets orchestrate a music of meditation. There are a couple of poems here about teaching grade school, and they are boring as often such poems are. Throughout the book, Sweeney wishes to teach us "How to Make a Game of Waiting," "How to Feed an Orchid," "How to Uproot a Tree," "How to Grow a Mushroom," and "How to Tune a Xylophone."  Writing How-tos is potentially interesting but that strategy is not pursued rangingly, and that point of view not questioned rigorously. After reading How to Live on Bread and Music, I am no wiser. 

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