When you sit in nature, your mind starts to wander through blips of thoughts—your first childhood injury, some song you don’t particularly care about, the email you never replied to three years ago, a deep sea where the sun doesn’t reach and creatures create their own light. If you’re very quiet and still, you can observe the sequence of new associations, ideas, memories, as they flash across the brain’s screen. As a humble audience for your own thoughts, you can explore consciousness with the attention bees give a flower—intensely devoted, but only for a few moments.
In Heather Sweeney’s first poetry collection, Just Let Me Have This (out now from UK’s Selcouth Station Press), we follow disjointed ideas as though we are bees flying from one flower to another. This flower the blue tint of eternity, that one the image of feathers falling out of a woman’s body. We never linger at one flower for too long, just enough to get and give what is needed. We follow this seemingly random trajectory until we get to the end and come to understand that we’ve been nourished by the chaotic and painful beauty that is human life.
Ten poems in all, Sweeney examines the dark underbelly of our pop culture-obsessed society, the cruelty of (human) nature, the dichotomy found between any two things (the last poem, “VS”, is 47 lines of battles, such as, “Sylvia Plath’s vision board vs. Anne Sexton’s twitter feed”). I found myself lost in tactile recollections, such as hearing Billie Jean play while getting a pap smear, and dark smacks of reality like a grandmother’s priest telling her to thwart abuse by being a better wife. There were phrases I still can’t quite figure out (“A plank of hot sequins,”) but the sound tastes good in my mouth when read aloud. Some lines stared me down with honesty (“I used to teach high school still drunk from the night before,”) and others grabbed my hand in kindred spirit (“Dear paper gown, my nakedness is not yours to protect,”).
At times, lines jarred me out of the reverie, such as while reading “Animal Crossing”, during which I happily wandered through dark scenes such as “I am a boar dying in the gutter / or clots of sun blistering to cancer on your cheekbone.” Neither of these occurrences are actually beautiful, but are made so by Sweeney’s careful observations and command of language. Later in the poem, after lines of similar brutal beauty, she writes, “I am your Cheesecake Factory.” I was perplexed and, quite frankly, disgruntled at being taken out of my dark dream and plopped into the booth of a chain restaurant. However, these moments, a few of them scattered throughout the collection, are an example of what makes Sweeney’s poetry so strong –a reminder that a poetic depiction of human existence isn’t just lyrical language and honest revelations, but just as happens in life, a person is pulled out of her reverie and finds herself in a very normal, boring place. And there is, indeed, beauty in that.
Twenty lines into the first poem, “Just Let Me Have This”, Sweeney writes, “There is no difference between human life and a word.” In a way, this line reads as the thesis: as readers, we are able to access her particular existence by consuming the words she has given to us, essentially erasing any palpable difference between the two in our minds. These poems serve as human life in lieu of the real thing. Heather Sweeney has achieved a stunning debut collection that will surely put her on the map for her sardonic and tender awareness of the minute details that make up a day, a memory, a dream, a human life.