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A Review of Little Million Doors

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Little Million Doors
by Chad Sweeney
Nightboat Books, April 2019; 80 pp.; $15.95 (Paperback)

In Chad Sweeney's sixth collection of poems, his subject is grief, spurred by the death of his father. Little Million Doors: An Elegy runs like a daydream, clear and lucid in the moment but difficult to make meaning from. Perhaps that is not the point of the book. Instead, the poem alerts us to the ways that grief makes the world strange and unknowable, not just for the deceased but for the grieving.

Grief changes our perspective, as death does. In the course of a day, we go from being with a father, a loved one, to deciding the fate of that body. Ostensibly, the same groups of cells inhabited the bed in morning as in afternoon, and yet we treasure one, and bury or burn the other—mere body and empty vessel. In the very first part of this book-length poem, Sweeney writes,

My skin felt heavy I left it

Draped

 

Over a chair to walk out

 

Cross the wet

Colors of may I could

 

See time glow I could

 

See the ancestors

Of trees let me

 

Ask you this

 

What name was I each

 

House in a

Street of houses my

 

Hands in the trees for bells

 

I promise to what

Purpose was my story the

 

Ripple of snake

 

Skins or sounds long

In the curtains

In trying to make meaning of this, a reader might assume that the speaker is the deceased, making his way suddenly into the after-life, a place that bears more than a passing resemblance to the world we know. Yet, simultaneously, the speaker might also be grieving, heaving off the heavy burden of care, walking instead into life after the death of a father, where the familiar becomes suddenly strange, and we are adrift. Purpose was his story, but what is his story now?

The poem proceeds fluidly, not pausing to construct a brick and mortar of meaning and narrative; rather, the text enacts the process of being and the process of mourning. He writes,

Water

The ripple the root of it here

 

Is thought is memory

 

Gathers in

Woodgrain the seasons to come I

 

Watch

 

Myself inside myself in

Side myself

The water metaphor continues to feel apt as the writing exists beautifully in the moment, but does not rest in set meaning. Simultaneously, the lines set forth the same ambiguity of earlier parts of the poem where the disembodied "ghost" might be trying to understand who and what he was, just as the grieving son tries to make sense of his new status.

Sweeney tends to write in couplets, but his line breaks resist traditional conversational breaks. They don't end on a comma or period. These lines splinter in unexpected places, severing the connection to traditional grammatical expectations. The very disenfranchisement brought about by death and grief are enacted in the lines themselves. Yet, if the lines are read aloud, they have a musicality, a rhythm, and they flow quite easily, an experience in and of themselves. Sweeney almost forces us to read them aloud as we search for a way to make sense of the breaks. Perhaps a kind of sense is there, or perhaps language itself and the ceremonies of speech and grammar lack meaning in the face of loss. Throughout the text, the poet makes strange the familiar, and it speaks back to the central story of the book—the impact of grief.

As the book continues, Sweeney introduces other avenues to understand memory, to imagine the afterlife, some "little million doors" of possibilities. He writes, "Language is this shaping the coffins," a way to come to terms with the reality of loss. The book ends with the following section:

And this must be what love

 

Feels like this

Spreading out over

 

Surfaces

 

Of leaves they flicker out

 

The children they are all

Children now their hands

 

On the drums the borders and

Bread is and is

 

This to gift

The last lines contain no spoilers, no great revelation of intent. The book is to be experienced, read without the impulse to make sense of so much as the impulse to surrender to and accept surreal turns of language and image. The end might suggest an understanding on the part of the deceased. It might suggest bounty, a sense that for everyone there is enough. Perhaps the dead see the living as children, ready to learn eventually what the deceased now understand, but I am postulating, trying to make meaning as reviewers must, and in doing so, I think I betray the book.

Instead, turn to its beauties and gifts—phrases like: "This smoke which is / the fine smolder // of thought" or "Children / On the bus to listen // Inside them each heart / like a cardinal // in its thicket." Accept that perhaps it is the journey here that is the book's gift.


Camille-Yvette Welsch is the author of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom and FULL. She is a Teaching Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University where she directs the High School Writing Day at Penn State. She also participates in the Poems from Life program, which links local writers with senior citizens to write poems about their lives.


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