How to Live on Bread and Music

by Jennifer K. Sweeney
Perugia Press 2009
Reviewed by James Cihlar


“the world is possible / and beyond human”

Sweeney Cover

Lyrical, autobiographical poetry sometimes takes a beating from the critics—or maybe that’s just my defensive assumption, as I tend to write and admire lyrical and autobiographical poetry. The unassuming poetic voice of How to Live on Bread and Music, mixed with occasional references to her life as a daughter, wife, and teacher, could invite Jennifer Sweeney’s Laughlin Award-winning second book to such criticism. If so, the criticism would be unjust. Lucid, fluid, and lovely, How to Live on Bread and Music is a compendium of experiments in advancing the imagination.

Far from being “emotion recollected in tranquility,” in Wordsworth’s formulation, Sweeney’s poems originate in memory, but advance through hypothesis. “Maybe you hear a song or maybe you don’t. / That’s the choice we are always making,” the opening poem asserts, urging the reader to look (or listen) beyond the surface. Divided into five sections, the book progresses from realism to abstraction. Sweeney makes short work of childhood, giving readers just enough to ground us through her later, more fanciful, forays. Featuring functional poem titles such as “Adolescence,” only the most productive reminiscences are put to work, as in the story of a student who jumps from a second story window and walks away:

At 22, I accepted a job teaching junior high.
Not far enough away from the hollow years
of my own shifting body, the seventh and eighth-grade girls,
slight and doe-sprung, drifted down wide industrial
hallways, bones jutting sideways from their skin.
One girl chose my second-story classroom
from where we’d see her fall past the window. . . .

Notions of the body inform this volume, not simply as a container for the spirit, but as the shifting surface of things, our transitive nature, and our inability to fully read the world at any given time.

Poems such as “Ballad for the Daily Condition” could be seen as list poems, as static catalogs of quotidian observations. For those who listen harder, they reveal themselves as successive waves of discovery, resurgent efforts to reach new territory, despite our inherent containment:

That mostly we do our living in houses,
rooms inside houses within rows of houses
and everyone is a supporting character in the story
of your life and the story is an unevenly written mystery
with unearned existential leanings,
dreams clinging to you until dinnertime
eclipses the afternoon.

Seemingly an adult recapitulation of Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon, these lines attempt to mediate the self and the world by both separating and joining container and thing contained. The poem proceeds through other available image banks—including train trips, a recurring motif—in an active inquiry into the human condition. Sweeney uses similar approaches in “Fragments for the End of the Year,” and “In Praise and Apology” to good effect.

Set off in its own section, the poem “The Listeners” is a mélange of song lyrics, a meditation on music, and a tribute to the poet’s father. This poem is remarkable for juxtaposing the Jackson 5 with Beethoven, Madonna with Dylan, without evoking camp. The desultory approach of discrete sections in seemingly random order belies the investigative nature that drives the poem. Sweeney’s gift for selection is evident in this poem, particularly in her retelling of the story of a record player her father bought from two brothers in Australia, brothers who “devoted their lives / to perfecting the art of playing a record.”

Their turntable was a bed of thick felt over glass,
the needle, platinum sharpened to an eyelash
then wrapped in cat intestines. . . .
The day #38 arrived at our house,
my father unpacked the turntable
and as the needle barely skimmed,
Donna Summer sang a note so perfect
it was turquoise.

A bittersweet tale of craftsmen who can only imagine perfection within the confines of current technology, this poem repeats the motif of the smallness of the human mind in the moment befuddled by the world’s expansive future.

Poem titles echoing the book’s title also recur throughout the book, such as “How to Uproot a Tree,” “How to Grow a Mushroom” and “How to Make a Game of Waiting,” adding unity to the collection. “How to Feed an Orchid,” for instance, includes the lovely, abstract lines:

Like your thoughts without television,
the columns will harness the underestimated air
into calyx and corolla.

A pleasant strain of the subjunctive floats through this book, adding a distinctly Romantic note.  I admire Sweeney’s deftness with syntax, as in these lines from “Erie Central Station”:

I’d like to think every night contains a fissure
where a couple of strangers are cast
in the grand light of an approaching train,
not the station where the train stops
but the station where the station stops,
and they choose something for which
they are completely unprepared.

“I, scientist of not-much-data,” Sweeney describes herself in “The Listeners,” and in fact her approach is empirical, constructing experiments on the fly, recording the results, and moving on to the next. If lyric verse is sometimes saddled with the burdens of commemoration, observation, and aphorism, How to Live on Bread and Music is a marvelous corrective, for those who choose to listen.