Arranging the Blaze
by Chad Sweeney
Anhinga Press, 106 pages, $15.00
In “The River,” the introductory poem to Chad Sweeney’s book, Arranging the Blaze, he writes,
I went to the river and found a desert
rising gradually toward the Pleiades,
lions panted beside a boat
half-buried in red sand.
Rivers, deserts, the Pleiades, lions: all these trigger words invoke a grand tradition powerful enough to cleanse and rearrange a landscape, either physically or psychologically. Indeed, there is a prophetic tone to many of Sweeney’s poems, as he rediscovers the geography of his own history and time, which inevitably tangles with nature and tradition. All this exploration is done with inventive imagery and precise diction that succeeds in tightening the line until it is taut with energy and urgency.
The book is divided into four parts: “Genealogy,” “Of Memory and Innovation,” “Basho’s Robes,” and “Arc of Intention.” In “Genealogy,” Sweeney traces the shared ancestry of people through elements of folklore. The poem “Genealogy” is Sweeney’s attempt to encapsulate the living world surrounding him, a world that affects and forms all of us. His refrain, “It is in me,” refers not only to both man-made and natural objects, but also to his own personal history (“Mother before she was my mother”) and how that history projects into a larger, shared history that “arrives” within us “by memory or dream.” One of his most successful poems in the book is found in this section: “The Welders” begins with the speaker watching a group of welders making a carousel, but Sweeney takes the welders’ jobs further, giving them a mythic quality:
Under the masks
they are magicians
to a mountain
with a red stitch,
a green stitch.
I’ve seen their work before,
The welders become god-like, the makers of civilization as we know it. They not only weld objects, but natural and philosophical inquiries. And, when they are done (reminding the reader of God’s seventh day of rest), they drink a beer, and we return to the initial image of the carousel that now begins to turn. The cyclical movement of this poem (highlighted by the circular nature of a carousel) contributes to its success: the generous leaps and turns sends the reader on a carousel ride of creation, and the sparse but incredibly detailed and inventive description is admirable and hits all the right marks.
The next section, “Of Memory and Innovation,” begins by exploring human interaction with nature. Sweeney is at his best in this section when he employs the use of the short line to highlight a beautiful lyricism. The poem, “Cul-de-Sac” effortlessly examines the disintegration of man-made objects:
Here the swing set
all manner of desire.
The poem then takes a turn, introducing a character who, in the midst of all this dilapidation, rearranges the world around him or her for a closer examination:
And a dark-haired child,
a new thing among the worlds,
broods over a baby snake,
its emerald head
under the jelly jar,
its living eyes.
It is the simplicity of this poem that holds the most impact: there is a gentleness found in almost all of Sweeney’s poems that turns the poet into a dark-haired child who picks up each detail and arranges them into his own little jelly jars of poems.
“Basho’s Robes” furthers the idea of innovation and reinvents tradition, especially in “33 Translations of One Basho,” a series of poems that attempts to do justice to the master Japanese haiku poet. This section is unlike all the other sections because it contains no personal experience, which shows Sweeney’s range and ability to remove himself from his poems. However, it still contains Sweeney’s themes of exploring the origins of something (in this case, 15th century Japanese poetry), as well as the themes of tradition, reinvention, and rearrangement. Sweeney’s goal in journeying to the past, then moving forward and rearranging the past to better understand it, is apparent even when he removes himself from the equation.
Sweeney begins his last section, “The Arc of Intention,” with three poems of personal history, creating his own folklorian tradition. These are some of the strongest poems in the section, asking the question, how does the past shape who we are? In “Inheritance,” Sweeney writes his own creation story:
And when she could walk no farther
she fell between the tracks to give birth.
Not a boy but a tree
rooted to the spot and began to grow
so that by dawn it might be strong enough
to stop the train.
At the end of the poem, Sweeney touches on the theme of time, giving himself his own arc of intention:
Mother was facing the wrong way
so I sprouted backwards
where no train could harm us.
Sweeney’s creation of a mythic birth only furthers the scope of history and how that influences the present and future. He uses his poems like time machines: going back in time to interrogate the past, then moving forward to rewrite the past in the way he sees it effecting the present. For, as he says in the poem “Moving,” “Words are everything / we own.” The line break is especially strong here because, to Sweeney, words are everything. They are his tools to understand and recreate the past. His mastery of words sends readers on a journey through time, a time that is relatable and familiar to our knowledge of tradition and history.