by Grant Cousineau
“I chase poems down like wild mares into fenced corrals…the horses of white lightning
gallop toward me; / afraid of nothing, they rush with an eye of hesitation / ready to
brush up against my heart with their horse madness. …I stand my ground and wait,
ready to hold on for dear life.”
It’s been sixteen years since Denise Sweet’s released her last book, a generation through which she’s served a four-year tenure as Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, taught in—and retired from—academia, and watched the blossoming of her grandson from an infant into a mature, well-educated and outspoken seventeen-year- old. Over that time she herself has continued to both grow and remain the same conscionable firebrand who, when I was just a sponge of a UW undergrad, showed me the power in poetry.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, she released her new book, Palominos Near Tuba City. In it, she’s gathered forty new and selected poems, a collection that feels like a mindful walk along a desert trail where you might find razor-sharp arrowheads, lustrous geodes, gruesome lizard bones, and storied artifacts. With grace, wisdom, and beauty, these poems neigh and whinny like the wild horses they are.
Sweet, an Anishinaabe (White Earth) Native American, is a member of the third largest tribal nation in the U.S., raised during the most impactful moments in civil rights history. As an innate poet of protest, she is the type of voice we need in times such as these. In Palominos, she rages against cultural norms that should have died off long ago, like in “Indian War,” chastising the cultural appropriation of Indian culture and clamoring for the rollback of AstroTurf and the combustion of the Goodyear Blimp. She addresses the problems of climate change directly in “The Chill Factor: Earth Day 2017,” where she envisions the damage done by climate change after a “10,000 year solar shudder,” and somewhat more indirectly in “Farmer Takes a Wife,” where a warm winter floods farmlands, leaving one farmer immobilized as he counts his losses.
But this collection also contains reflections on significant moments in America’s recent past. For example, in “Veteran’s Dance,” she calibrates the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing not by dollars or bodies, but rather through the gaping hole it left in the big, black sky. Similarly, she applies that re-angled perspective in “Alarming Light (Abbotabad, May 2, 2011),” told from the point-of- view of Osama bin Laden upon his death. In the poem, he looks upon his fifth and final wife before descending to hell. Somehow, Sweet finds a way to channel moments of uncategorical evil and use them to unearth deeper shades of humanity.
And yet, in the tick marks of socio-political importance, she clings harder to humanity than history, speaking more from a place of spirit than political strategy. It’s as if she speaks better to the workings of nature than those of humans. As she once told me, Mother Earth is where “the real academy exists.”
If her poems teach no other lesson, it’s that we never stop growing, that we should never stop allowing ourselves to be curious or perplexed by the world around us. In “7-Year- Old, Taken Away in Handcuffs: A Found Poem,” Sweet reacts to a particular news broadcast from 2004 giving the staggering fact that, at the time, one in five children in urban South Baltimore suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. The poem that follows is a beautiful, heart-wrenching eulogy for those children:
from constant shock
and terror sticks to
the neurons like
flypaper; never able
to feel ever
But amidst these revelations and somber discoveries are wonderful bursts of love and humor, such as the women in “Zen and the Women’s Way of Parking” who shun cruise control to achieve driving nirvana. And in the final poem, “All the Animals Came Singing,” Sweet pays majestic reverence to the ghost of Aashigsug, a hooded shaman who returns to sing songs to the animal kingdom. It is filled with musicality and joyous peace, as if promising that, with the right spirit, the world may find its way once again, if only we are able to rediscover how connected to Mother Earth we all are.
Denise Sweet will be holding an author reading and signing for UntitledTown on Sunday, April 22 in the Brown County Library Auditorium where copies of her new book, Palominos Near Tuba City will be available. She will also be a part of a panel on Sunday, April 22.