THE UTNE READER: “Joyelle McSweeney: Lyrical Mysterian”

UTNE Review’s Movers and Shakers of 2002

“American poetry divides into two hostile camps. On one side stand the ‘innovative’ poets, who trace their lineage to Charles Olson (the poet who probably coined the term postmodernism) and who like to experiment radically—and often rather dryly—with language. On the other are the “mainstreamers,” who are more interested in emotional connection than theoretical savvy or linguistic play. Innovatives claim that mainstreamers don’t think; mainstreamers claim that innovatives don’t feel.

But this quarrel is beside the point in the work of some of our best young poets. Take Joyelle McSweeney, a 26-year-old with a Harvard degree, two years at Oxford, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s elite Writers’ Workshop. Her language is innovative, charged with wit, energy, and surprise, but underneath the surface runs a mysterious current of real emotion:

In dialogue with the resonant fabric,
lettuce, I embrace you, and I admit
that internal suffering is difficult to photograph.
Lost roads, I call for you
In the back yard, I toe over the leaves
Little cha-cha

McSweeney’s voice is childlike and knowing, edgy and tender, and her play with words and ideas is nimble—as when she toys with the game of golf at the end of this poem (‘Afterlives’):

Forsythia opens its bright palm
And the woman pushes her stroller out of it.

This festive littleness of food.
These spirits,
The color of glass, disappear
Into what they’re poured into.
This festive littleness of air.

But to walk out into August’s
speedy, undulating greens.
To be fast in the green of that fairway.

If it isn’t always clear exactly what’s going on in her poems, they have so much glamour and charm that we’re led further and further into them—and into poetry itself, which always has been, and always should be, something of a mystery.”

Jon Spayde