Monday, February 11, 2008

Nan Sweet - Poetry Reading and a Retrospective

Nan Sweet, author of Cherry Pie's second chapbook Rotogravure, will read her poems along with other faculty members to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the MFA program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis this Saturday, February 16, at 7 p.m. at the Touhill Center at UMSL. Click here for information and directions.

The MFA program at UMSL has been growing in numbers and in poetic heft, and Nan has played a supporting role in that growth, encouraging students and connections, teaching poetry classes, and last year serving as Guest Editor for an issue of the program's literary journal Natural Bridge, #16. Most recently, Nan is serving as Chair of the English Department.

The anniversary and reading provide an occasion to reflect on Nan's chapbook, which quickly outsold its first run of 100 copies and has now nearly sold out of the second run of an additional 50 copies -- no small potatoes for a poetry chapbook.

Over the last few months, I've found many of Nan Sweet's poems and images running through my head for an unexpected reason. I've spent most mornings lately in a tall building overlooking the St. Louis city's north side, the setting for some of Nan's poems. My company (not Cherry Pie! -- but my day job) is undergoing a merger/acquisition, and during long morning meetings to hash out how the merging companies will combine their computer systems I've sat in a low-lit conference room facing the landscapes of old St. Louis, with Nan's lines about the city's history running through my head and her understated but incisive awareness of economic factors feeling all too relevant. Depending on weather, the landscape is gray or brightly illuminated in whites and ethereal yellows, and I see echoes of a line from the title poem in Nan's collection:
"We drive off into a morning / already yellow, mordant, we say, corrosive enough / to fix the dye into cloth, or etch the news onto metal." From the eighth floor my unimpeded view is frighteningly vast, summoning all the awe that history and generations--and poetry--can inspire.

Nan's poems in Rotogravure span the mosaics hand-laid at the old St. Louis Cathedral, to the buildings where the local newspaper produced Sunday supplements using rotogravure printing methods, to the campsite where William Clark made his headquarters before this city took its present form. History becomes personal as she visits these places, calling up their stories and connecting us to them with finely and subtly crafted verses that demand to be read, and re-read. She brings to her poetry the same care, precision, and generosity of spirit that I have seen her extend to students, to the interpretation of poetry and its ability to pull in the good and the bad and the enternal, and to the art of teaching itself. There's an acceptance--more than that, an embrace--of the "heartland both tainted and providential" as she points out in her preface to the poems.

In the opening poem, "The Jazz Flute Plays," set in the city's north side--the portion of the city my eighth-floor view affords--she establishes the importance of rhythm. Art and music play a sustaining role in history, it seems: "it is rhythm alone that is knowledge."

Her aesthetic is tied to the details of daily life and the details of the mind, woven together--Hegel, hotcakes, toy volcanos, corroded pennies, history, the shifts of power, and coffee table books--with today projected onto the grand theatre of the past:

...The only stars we know
are old ones, only our knowledge is new,
And perception is an arrangement of
The present...
from "Allegheny"

I'll end by simply quoting in full one of the poems that keeps pulling me back, again and again. It is about the city's main public park, Forest Park, and its history.

Scattered Lagoons
. . . not yet a breach, but an expansion. . .

The past recedes, and in proportion
to the increasing distance, affiliation
grows and the form of knowledge changes.
Along a boulevard, small-cobbled in mountain
gravel, everything darkens to a dream. Then,
streetlights come on, their soft whites

an ornamental haze. Moisture rises,
and the smell of green. At twilight
there are no other cars. This is The Park,
the only one this city loves. These are the
late nineteen-forties, and there are terraces,
fountains, falls. No one is running

steadily at the perimeter. Families
practice fishing, noondays, along
the scattered lagoons that are remnants
of the River of the Fathers. On the hill
the Museum is full of iron and bronze, bodies
gleaming with blacks and greens. In a fountain,

pennies corrode. Something like gravity
pulls down the good appearances of thought,
and good moves into distortion with evil.
Somewhere under the park, the River
springs with the seasons. Giant fairgrounds
have melted into the ground. Downtown

the highway moves in its limestone pit
going west. This highway has always been.
It will divide tree from tree in the Forest.
In the dream, the park is quiet. The people
listen with no radios. Even the twilight
opera drifts away. The homes to the south

are cemented to the avenues. To the north
the balustrades are crumbling. The River
of the Fathers surfaces in railyards and then
borders the city with the white stones of its walls.
This knowledge begins with a dream. Even time
is controverted when art is the only power.

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