‘origin of’ by Kiely Sweatt
“I keep a tin / pour it in my skeleton”
The poems in Kiely Sweatt’s collection origin of are impatient in several senses. They emerge in short lyric bursts, sometimes pedestrian (“I eventually thought you’d settle so we could consider our options”) and sometimes explosive (“I grab a fistful / of soil, push into / an open blue vein”). They point, they flay, they characterize:
When beaks tore at the flesh
like hands and forks the meat was left scattered debris
over a dinner plate that you and I
both picked at.
I have mixed business with the synthetic architect.
You have the gravel floor.
I’m gray and bored and endlessly squeezing melons.
You fill and cut wounds to perfection.
That last line could be relating a given action on a particular day, or describing a state of being. The compression—shortness without spareness—makes it feel like the latter: something fixed and true about the “you,” something that will never change. The only way to escape it is to end the poem. Compression also means that each word has more weight and charge, and words with a high degree of specificity set each other buzzing:
I drive my fork into these things,
electric heat, a taste of goat milk.
I had to look up anaclisis. It’s a psychoanalytic term with a few definitions that cluster around the idea of pathological dependence on another person, and these poems’ woundlike images and judgments seem to concur that dependence is destructive. The speaker may lust for a “Frenchman with a thick accent” or feel an addict’s hunger, but the relative terseness and tight surface of the poems as a group offer a resistance and a desire to get the moment of intensity in and over with. Even a still life like “I Am A Mouthful Of Currents And Petals.” skews brusque:
Bare breast, pale salmon,
against a mustard twill.
You are not just apples or pears
but honeysuckle, lemon zest.
Wading down a crisp tarp of delicate citrus.
You are as tempting as a milieu of off-season.
And when these poems speak flatly—“I don’t get it” or “I am alright in this small space”—they speak with an impatient shrug. An itch to move on, perhaps to the next intensity or sensory flourish (“walking on aluminum blocks to hear the rain better” and “eyes withered from spores of thick dust”) or maybe to be done with the impacts of images and feelings, to rest:
The neighbors close their curtains.
I feel like throwing up sleep.
And all I can say is, ‘thank you.’
The resting moments are not more or less “real” or “felt” or “authentic” than the moments of intensity, but they are often more surprising. Many of the poems in this collection make conventional or formulaic choices, what poet Elisa Gabbert and others have called “poetic moves” or “ponemes,” recognizable constructions that travel from poem to poem. Comparing a lover to food seems to fit the bill, as do the sense-heavy definitions in “Barcelona”:
That summer was concrete
sizzling with bacon,
a shoulder peeling cancer,
mouthfuls of dried blueberries bent over the onion grass.
That summer was about surveying clovers
when medications left mouthfuls of melancholy.
Gabbert has pointed out that “It’s hard if not impossible to write memorable poems without using identifiable moves,” and adds that most writers have some that they return to frequently, whether invented or borrowed. Like all tools, they have the potential to be functional and beautiful. They also have the potential to powerfully take over a poem. Real originality of thought is rare, and when we read, we often do so looking for ourselves, which means the things that stick with us and transfix us often aren’t that unfamiliar. When the poems in origin of connect and concentrate, they do so partly because they evoke and treat things our senses know and our feelings replicate. “Poetry moves,” in some of these poems, help that to happen:
Today preparation has been the key to sober living
but I seem more interested in wonder-working,
like the power of my foot busting into this wall.
In others, instead of thinking “I’ve felt this before,” we think “I’ve seen that before,” and the ways the poems could meet or change us are numbed:
Xs and Oh’s and the rest of our mistakes.
The choreography of snow falling,
impresses me like these rooms
filled with you.
Two poems in origin of that make particular and intense use of the collection’s characteristic moves and qualities are “Bodies” and “This Poem Takes Place In My Livingroom.” In both, barely interdependent mini-poems or numbered stanzas offer highly concentrated hits of image and feeling, like punching away a curtain that quickly falls again:
Boiling and bleaching,
wrestling bed sheets,
writing about the sea.
Is it impossible to extract oil from pain?
I keep a tin
pour it in my skeleton.