Reviewed by Jefferson Navicky
76 pp CavanKerry Press
“Dear lord I have a good idea.” Maureen Seaton writes in “Psalm 1.0”, “I’m/ at the end of
the best thing ever.” To write a cancer memoir, or a book of poems about cancer, seems like it must be a continued dance around, or maybe with, the elephant in the room. The elephant isn’t cancer; it’s death. How close do you come to it? How long do you let yourself linger next to it? How much room do you need for your escape? Is it the best thing ever?
During Rachel Zucker’s excellent Commonplace Podcast conversation with poet Anne
Boyer about Boyer’s cancer memoir, The Undying, Boyer says in writing the book while still battling cancer, she left the door open to death. Maureen Seaton’s approach to the poems in Sweet World, rather than leaving open death’s door, is to slam the door in death’s face, cackle, and then write a sign to hang on the door that reads “No Vacancy” accompanied by a drawing of a middle finger; in other words, she does this by writing incredible poems that will leave death, and everybody else reading these poems, shaking their heads.
Seaton writes in “Fore/words: 2017”: “Given that mortality was sudden and focused and
within walking distance, I tried constantly to make light for however long the journey.” She even asks for the reader’s forgiveness if she “mixed up magic with grief;” however, for this reader, the magic of these poems came straight out of their levity, their direct and unflinching gaze at death, and her willingness to crack a joke.
In “Two Men Walking a Breast: Or things that might give you cancer,” Seaton runs
through a dizzying list of possible culprits. The usual suspects: “DDT, MSG, and HFCS” or “Pots, pans, deodorants, charcoal…” But then she gets to a zinger: “Being/too nice could definitely give it to you. Trips to IKEA/could. (Ha ha.)” The confusion and helplessness braids with irreverence, building higher and higher as the poem careens toward its end where suddenly, like huffing and puffing through the underbrush toward the top of a mountain, we emerge together at the sun-lit, quiet peak: “Ask yourself:/How long do I want to live? How can I do things/differently? What am I doing wrong?” If I had been chewing gum, I would’ve swallowed it right then. Aren’t we all right there with her? What are we doing wrong? How long do we want to live?
Seaton’s command of the light and dark elements of this book is truly impressive. She
moves from levity to mortality often and easily, and sometimes (and perhaps most effectively) when we don’t even know she’s done it. For example, the end of “Psalm 1.0” comes up quick and quiet: “It’s a little too late/ for the rest of my life.” It’s the kind of poem ending that reverberates far down the page, and makes a reader want to close the book and contemplate his own small life and what it’s already too late for.
Sweet World is set in the Buddha-belt capital of America: Boulder, Colorado. And thus
the Buddha himself makes cameos, as do Allen Ginsberg, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, founded by Ginsberg and Anne Waldman (and my alma mater). Seaton even titles a poem “Nederland,” the small mountain town where I once lived, but this book is not so much a book of anyone’s home as it is a book of dislocation. Seaton lives in Miami, so the book takes place in limbo land, not her home, but the place where she goes to receive treatment for breast cancer. And thus, her dislocation is the limbo land between the living (Miami) and the dead (wherever that is). The book is part elegy to a lost left breast, and part dip into the world of the dead, or at least a sustained, courageous glance, longer perhaps than anyone is truly comfortable with.
Sometimes Seaton is disarmingly frank: “Recently, I experienced life with cancer. An/
intoxicating time, richly infused with the liquor of death, but good too/because no one
expected much of me and I was left to my own mind” (from the title poem), or “It’s good to wait as long/as you can to get cancer. Then it’s good to take a/long time before you get it again and then again.” (from “12 Paintings from Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal”). It’s in moments like these that Seaton pulls us aside, almost outside the poem world, and tells us exactly what it was like. It feels conspiratorial, but just when you think she’s going to whisper in your ear, Seaton blows back hard, and we end up in some blown-out world: “Then/I was a thought experiment, living and dead, there and here,/stranded between horizons.” (from “First They Were”). The effect is intoxicating, both personal and profound, glib and sincere. This is what Seaton meant in her “Fore/Words” about mixing magic and grief. It’s a potent cocktail.
Seaton ends “The Integrity of Matter; or, Peace in the Rose-colored Now” with these
lines: “What a big open space I am. The way these/electrons come together, you’d think I was real.” In Sweet World, you get a sense of how big that space is, even if you can’t quantify it or feel safe in it, but as a reader, you come to love it. It’s as real as anything else ever has been.
Jefferson Navicky was born in Chicago and grew up in Southeastern Ohio. He is the author of the poetic novella, The Book of Transparencies, and the story collection, The Paper Coast, as well as the chapbooks, Uses of a Library, and Map of the Second Person. His work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Electric Literature, Hobart, Tarpaulin Sky, and Fairy Tale Review. He is the archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection, and teaches English at Southern Maine Community College. Jefferson lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and puppy.