01 January 2010

How to Live on Bread and Music by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Review by Tasha Cotter

How to Live on Bread and Music
by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Perugia Press
98 pages

ISBN: 978-0-9794582-2-4
Link to Purchase

Jennifer K. Sweeney’s second collection of poetry How to Live on Bread and Music consists of five sections, two of them being multi-page poems, which are somewhat unusual as longer poems are notoriously more difficult to maintain, but Sweeney manages to avoid the common pitfalls of longer works with ease. Both of her longer poems radiate with fresh imagery, clever word choice, and an uncommon strength of metaphor. Clearly Sweeney is one of the brightest stars in emerging poetry. Her multi-page poem, “The Listeners” recounts the poet’s childhood with her father and music. Song lyrics are embedded seamlessly into the stanzas and each moment feels very carefully wrought. Sweeney moves from the abstract to more narrative moments:
I’d sit between the six foot speakers,
ache of my adolescence

and his adulthood
soothed by those vinyl voices

surging from the Magnaplanes
in a shared and private anthem.
Perhaps the most immediate trait of Sweeney’s work is the rich language one finds in her poetry coupled with a very precise use of metaphor. Throughout this impressive second collection we find a wealth of strong imagery, and an intense focus no matter what the subject. There are no weak poems in this collection; each poem dazzles in its own way. In her poem “Weathering” her gift of precision is on display:
At dusk the sky lowered a spectrum of whites
and rested atop it like thickest netting,
rows of rooftops dwarfish under the fog.

Much of weathering is erasure,
the daily words disintegrating
in the mouth each night to mist.
Sweeney is never more strong than in the poem “In Flight,” the first poem in section five. Here she begins with legend and ends with a mysterious wisdom that holds the reader’s imagination in suspension. It is in moments like this where the world’s nature and all its subtle beauty are brought to the forefront. Sweeney captures that notion of being born in the air and turns back to the reader for a moment to pose the fascinating question:
Maybe you have been born
into such a life

with the bottom dropping out.
Maybe gravity is claiming you
and you feel
Sweeney’s work has already garnered a lot of attention. Her first book, Salt Memory won the 2006 Main Street Rag Poetry Award and this most recent collection won the 2009 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. In short, this collection rings with thought-provoking images and the silence she employs is noticeably well-thought out. Sweeney is one of those rare poets who can take a subject and make it true. Through careful technique she brings each poem to life and the music we hear is truly inspired. 


Tasha Cotter’s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Booth, The Rumpus, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a storySouth Million Writers award, and her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net Anthology 2011. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com.