Taking All the Secrets with Him: Rick Marlatt on Chad Sweeney’s Parable of Hide and Seek

Parable of Hide and Seek, Chad Sweeney, Alice James Books, 2010

Chad Sweeney is up to some serious mischief in his latest collection, published this fall by Alice James Books. A Parable of Hide and Seek features seamless transitions between narration and metaphor, personification and memory, and reality and fantasy. “Council of Caryatids” is an emblematic piece, in that Sweeney employs playful, unexpected ventures in tone and perspective that illuminate not only logical responses to imaginative stimuli, but also reveal hidden, subtle understandings that speak to larger truths about how language conveys meaning.

Late at night the caryatids
discuss what is behind them.
They face the piazza with its bright water

and strain their eyes sideways
to glimpse each other’s noses.
Listening to the discussion

feels like a cold tremble in the marble.
Gypsies make their accordions weep.
A clubfoot brushes his teeth over the step.

One caryatid says,
A darkness opens behind us
And we are its favorite children. (15)

With relatively simple, tactile images, Sweeney offers a unique conception of perspective that breathes eccentric life and personality into the artificial world. All of this is accomplished in a smoothly organized structure which allows the characters to gradually come to life through the first half of the piece. The third stanza is a crucial point in the poem wherein the pace slows down to a breathless silence, then again gathers energy before launching into its brilliant, addictive conclusion.

Thematically, the collection resists a categorical journey from one place to another; even better, it offers myriad destinations, a plethora of possible realities, of which Sweeney is the orchestrator and guide. Sweeney blends together aspects of consciousness in “The Methodist and his Method” and “Poem,” elements of fiction in “Character Development,” “Rising Action,” and “Establishing a Setting,” urban and industrial landscapes in “The Factory” and “The Auction,” as well as the natural world in “Nocturne” and “Harvest Time while Whale Watching.”

Poem after poem, Sweeney demonstrates the ability to shift tenses, images, directions in the middle of a piece, without altering structure or style. This tactic is visible in “Go to Sleep,” where the speaker’s point of view transfers from third person to first person at the piece’s midpoint. The result is a symbiotic existence between the speaker and the beautifully descriptive environment that has been constructed. “San Francisco” and “Into the Tunnel” explore apocalyptic urban textures that haunt the reader in magical, benevolent ways. While Sweeney’s visions are, at times, drastically disjointed and jarring, the effects are purified by his lines which hum with an unmistakable musicality, a dependable rhythm that intensifies the form that appears to restrain it.

In the title poem, Sweeney’s knack for extremes mixes wonderfully with his quiet brilliance and unmistakable heart. And all of it is on constant display.

I was a junebug found by a vole.
I was a wave ruffled by a wind.

I stood in long bank lines.
I attended the Third Church of the Heretic.

I hid as darkness
diminished by a torch.

I wore glasses and a bowler.
I lay flat as a spill.

I hid as a bullet fired into hay.
I hid as a system of government.

You were my partner in everything.
I lived for you to find me. (22)

Few couplets are able to offer as much profundity and weight with abbreviated lines as those found in this beautiful, nifty piece. Each couplet is a perfectly married pair, an element of the poem that accentuates its themes of counterparts, symbiosis, and relationships. Fittingly, by the poems conclusion, the reader realizes that he is one with the speaker. Those fortunate enough to be familiar with Sweeney’s previous work will see many of these poems as natural progressions from his earlier efforts, yet what is perhaps even more impressive than the visible honing in the poet’s skill, is the balance of a sophisticated style with a genuinely hopeful voice. A Parable of Hide And Seek is a truly terrific gem just aching to be found.