Reviewed by Chris Vola
The 20 shrewd, sparse poems in A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer resonate with potential and presence, vibrate with the maddened shouts of a dozen remarkably dissimilar narrators, and entice the reader with the sagacity of an elderly carpenter and the bright-eyed callowness of a newborn. The fourth chapbook from San Franciscan Chad Sweeney grabs the proverbial hand and flings it on an exploration through cities and deserts, across the boundaries of space, and far from the realm of hackneyed conventionality.
Many of the poems in the book sting from jarring collisions between the ancient and the postmodern, the bucolic and the metropolitan. Medieval vicars and slashing guillotines are interspersed with visions of the first colony on the moon, ancient grandmothers anchor themselves onto the antennas of satellite dishes, a cigar store echoes with the sounds of growing rice and prosthetic limbs. These juxtapositions endow the poems with a sense of timelessness, of a memory that travels far beyond the reaches of any single lifetime and the clear perception of a future that is at once hopeful and foreboding. In “Diurine,” Sweeney describes a homeward trip on the freeway that quickly becomes a journey through space, time, and language itself:
My house arrives
through the internet,
its corners landing everywhere.
To be a red night
watched carefully by Bedouins.
To be a comma
between two really important
The timeless element in Sweeney’s poetry allows for a rare cohabitation of narrators (some valiant, some disturbed, some naïve, others just plain pissed-off) from a wide array of geographical locations, moral and spiritual inclinations, and even spatial dimensions.
Beneath the liberation that this timelessness creates, there exists a more important and urgent notion that each passing moment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, must be appreciated and respected. Even though the poet has been bestowed with widely spanning visions of remarkable clarity, he understands that “Today a book is being hung. / Tomorrow it could be you,” that nothing is guaranteed, that time stops for no one, not even the most clairvoyant among us. Sadly, this respect goes hand-in-hand with more than a hint of bitterness and nostalgia, a longing for a time when “we were happy,” an evaporating connection to a family history, and a quickly approaching end-time. The cigar-smoking father, the sister who burns happy faces into her arms, and scores of mustached uncles and great-uncles fade with the flick of a switch. The narrator of “Harvest Time and Whale Watching” acknowledges and quietly surrenders to this inevitability when he admits, “Most of my life is in the past. / There goes some more of it.”
Oftentimes, Sweeney employs short, musical lines that contribute to many of the poems’ highly rhythmical qualities. The vast majority of these lines contain only three or four words and many end with some sort of punctuation, usually a period. The brevity of the phrases gives each line more weight and instills a sense of sharpness and exactness to the text and the space between it, a staccato march with accents on the notes of each striking image and idea: “No closer to understanding. / I’ve seen my wife sleeping. / A blue face on a pillow.” In “The Factory,” anaphora creates a persistent rhythm:
One key is a street.
One key is a glacier.
One key is a cardinal.
One key is a bruise.
From these lines the reader can easily deduce the accurate hums and the metallic chug-chugging of cogs, the relentlessness of a strange, yet pleasant-sounding assembly line.
In a collection that glides so gracefully and succinctly through centuries, across continents, from the bizarre to the rational, the element of surprise is a constant and unifying motif. Men teach sheep to fight lions, briar patches shiver with delight, cities spontaneously rise from the sea. It is never evident to the reader from the outset where each poem will end, but one can be fairly certain that the people and cities the poet describes in the beginning stanzas of his poems will almost certainly take on bizarre characteristics or be placed in seemingly impossible situations. However, nothing is ever impossible or improbable in the world Sweeney crafts, a place where “I’m a cancelled stamp. / You’re the carpenter / of an orphanage. / She’s an out-of-order sign,” a place where the idiosyncrasies of a startling reality in some way embellish and mirror our own. Therein lies A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer’s ultimate appeal. Within the pages of the book, the reader is drawn not only to Sweeney’s characters, but to his or her own grandparents, uncles, and neighbors, to the threads of a common past, and towards a future we view with equal parts hope and apprehension.
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