Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Heather Sweeney, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness

Interlude: I am not on the syllabus. I am not from the hills or the vast ocean. I am peeling birch. I had gymnastics lessons. For a time. I was not hungry. The sun paraded for three months. I cannot tell you how much I love or do not love. I am things you cannot measure. I am not domestic. I ran track and was average. I always knew I would move somewhere far away. If I feel hemmed in I will retaliate. This is something to depend on.

Dear Marshall,
I went to Target today to buy a black mini skirt and had a feeling someone was following me. I calmed myself down, accusing my imagination. As I was paying I turned around and the guy was right behind me. Buying air fresheners. I remembered those boxing moves you taught me. My thoughts pinned under there. This is my world now. I imagine the sun rising across your voice. Across the flavored air. Are you at home now? At least that is something we could share.

I’ve been going through San Diego poet Heather Sweeney’s new full-length poetry title, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness (Brooklyn NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2020), following a handful of chapbooks (including one from above/ground press) as well as the full-length Call Me California (Finishing Line Press, 2020), a book published almost simultaneously alongside this one (although I have yet to see a copy). Dear Marshall is constructed as a book-length lyric suite of prose poems that employ elements of the first-person journal entry against that of the letter-poem, offering observation, memory, introspection and an immediacy that brings one right into the action of her sentences. She writes of violence, love, family and loss, a childhood of rebellion and survival, a flurry of impulse, heartbreak and outcomes deeply-felt. “My feet are unusually narrow. I can run a long distance at a slow pace. I / have had past-life visions. In one I am hunting a boar in a dense jungle. / In another I am running with a baby in one arm wrapped in a brown / blanket. We are close to death. In a field of ice. In the long neck of a / dream.” The poems run from direct statement and stories retold into abstract, lyric layerings, and is structured as a curious kind of call-and-response, as every page an opening call paired with a response directly to “Marshall.” Who is Marshall? Given the rhetorical aspect of the letter-poem, it might not be as important who Marshall is or was, but what and how she writes to him.

Dear Marshall,
You were always my witness. You never stopped me from myself. What does survival mean? A hand hidden. Under my coat. Despite my effort. Being chased by your mom’s boyfriend with a broken beer bottle. Here, an abstraction. A hand that became a root piercing our shadow. When that fucker fell to the floor I swore I heard his tooth crack. And I laughed until I convulsed. When was the last time we. I invite you to touch my convulsion. My small empire of words. The bitch in me is this shattered frame. One day your eyes are blue and then another. Meet me in the hotel lobby tomorrow. I will be waiting. (Leopard coat, sunglasses.)

Sweeney’s poems are first-person declarations that attempt to place herself, to centre herself in a collage of experience, situations and potential chaos, shaping the chaos into a particular kind of order. “I am a sentence made of two icy twigs. Of splintered afterthought. I’m / at the airport again. The wall of windows, a stanza.” She weaves in a collage of pilfered lines, lived experiences, questions and observations into a coherent line, working a shape of the world in which she exists. This book-length poem, this book-length suite of poems, read as a journal of accumulated sentences shaped as a way to write one’s way into being, into becoming; to write through and beyond the unsettled past and present into a less uncertain future.

There is a bee on my wrist. I am drinking almond milk chai. I know almond consumption is contributing to the drought in California, but I always forget. A bird hit my window this morning. My wingspan is five feet. I am good in an emergency. I am at a literary festival listening to a panel about the Middle East. Sometimes I feel dumb when it comes to politics. American culture, unraveling, worry beads, migration, Armenia, minorities, U2, strands, the tribe, millet, secular. I am losing ground. My attention span. I like to think of myself as a container. I will always go for broke. A broken modernity. I like CBS Sunday morning. I don’t like to think about what progress means. I don’t want to know what a century feels like.

Dear Marshall,
In Venice I thought of you, then also in terrible Germany. I wish we could meet in San Francisco at the MOMA again and talk about the books that make us cry. I told you. What do I deserve at this point? Can we go to Chinatown and shut that shit down then go to a strip club talking about the life we wanted? I wish you were. I cannot settle. Can we go to a café like normal people? I do not want to hurt us further but we are too open, too much of a pause, to ignore.


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