John Sweet is at his best when he is at his darkest. And that's where he usually is. He puts before the reader a backdrop of unrelenting darkness. In famine, a book with no capital letters and no punctuation, there are no adornments. The lines of poetry are as stark as the character set they are made from.
But, against this backdrop, there is something that, for want of a better term, I'll call 'light.' What is this light, what are its properties, and how does it happen at all?
The opening poem in famine is called "mapping the 21st century: notes for the disappeared." A central theme in this poem is the disappearance of a girl. About two-thirds of the way through the poem, we come to these lines:
the dogs are hungry
but no one thinks to feed them
no one thinks
to put out the fire and
the girl is gone
is nothing more than
a blurred smiling face nailed
to every telephone pole in
a town i never want to
You don't have to read further to know that there is no happy ending here. In fact, in this poem, you can't read much further. There are only three more lines—as the poet claims the town that he doesn't want to walk through:
what it looks like
from this distance is
The death that he sees projected on the telephone poles is eventually to be his own too. And ours. We don't think about it most of the time. Probably John Sweet doesn't either. In his poetry, he never forgets it.
In "where the word is almost spoken," an earlier poem that preceded this collection, he establishes the coloration of a scene:
where the sun is a
thin wash of grey
in dali's sky
And it's the right coloration. But it is the 'word' that is the prevailing topic. The poem ends this way:
and the word is hope
and it will be
and all of us
of this much
Being a dedicated and unrepentant re-reader, I was reading those lines for the Nth time when I felt the full impact of his work. I mean I felt something very much like the flicker of an upswing in my mood. Why? Like most people, or maybe all people, I wish things would work out somehow. Then why did those lines make me feel good?
I think it starts as a form of contrast. Sweet's relinquishing of every hope creates a darkness so intense that something contrasting takes shape in front of it. It's very much like the formation of a secondary image, a complementary color, after you look at a fluorescent hue. When you stare at an intense green, you soon see an aura of red. When I look into the blackness of Sweet's poems, I come to a point when I suddenly see light.
But that's just the phenomenon. The next question that comes up is 'what is this light?' Is it the persistence of hope, after all? Or is it a release from hope? A feeling of being freed for a moment from the suspense of hoping, against all apparent odds, that somehow things will work out? Or am I jolted into seeing more dimensions of the awful mystery we live in—or, at least, do I get a glimmer of that and feel it as a nameless exhilaration? Or is it something else altogether?
I don't intend to suggest an answer. What impresses me about Sweet's poetry is that it brings me to that sensation, brings me to those questions, and leaves me to consider.
Despite his prevailing tone, not all of his poems are entirely dark. Among the works in famine is one called "poem with light and form, but no direction." Early in this poem, Sweet's theme is as fatal as ever.
raping their daughters and
murdering their sons
Then, after a skillful transition in tone and focus, in which the poet steps back from his description of a demented world, the poem closes with these two stanzas:
except that maybe
begins to love me again
my hands suddenly alive
with the possibility
It's engaging to hear him vary his tone to write lines of affection—and these, in particular, have a terrific vitality. Obviously they're not complacent valentine lines. They carry the image of a past sundering between the speaker and his wife. And, even here, to hope is only a possibility. To have your hopes fulfilled has to be more distant yet.
And there's this—his 'possibility of hope' offers me an emergency exit in those other poems where he seems to blot out all hope. Still, because of the power of his gloom, I find myself hoping that he stays mostly with his darkest poems.
Often it is his low-key lines that are the most desolate. I think of "a random progression" (also in famine) where I read lines of violent brutality at the beginning. Then, near the end, I come to this:
...a woman in a house
filled with shadows checks
the clock beside her bed
John Sweet comes through as a very honest poet—as someone who values an unadorned reality, and who presents the world as he sees it. And, whether through his intent or through some inevitable organic side effect of his poetry, his dark vision irresistibly evokes something that I have to call hope. I also see, behind his frequent preoccupation with lost or slain children, an intrinsic caring—perhaps the kind of caring felt by someone in touch with his own childhood—a feeling that he never exploits, never reduces to sentimentality. Most of all, he is an artist who journeys into absolute doom—and comes back, bringing vital poetry with him.
The chapbook, famine, is not very long. It contains 20 poems, each on a single page. I think these 20 poems are very worth reading, and I would recommend this book to any reader of serious poetry.