You’re The Woods Too by Dennis James Sweeney, published by Essay Press, is nearly impossible to categorize. It does not remind me of anything I have read before, and the questions asked feel both urgent and omnipresent. Sweeney invokes multiple forms including journal, prose poetry, set direction, brief lyric essays—yet the author’s choices so naturally fit the material that form-naming becomes irrelevant. Questioning and a sense of fullness (muchness?) are the book’s driving aesthetics, and the modes Sweeney uses mimic the various ways one thinks their way through a problem.
The most structured of the forms used read as journal entries made over seven days while the poet takes himself “away” to interrogate some questions of self. The lyric and brief sentences in those pieces do not so much tell a story as map the mind of the writer. We soon know this much: the speaker has a home life and an out-of-doors life, and he puzzles where he fits among the two.
The early entries intersperse descriptions of the external, “Curl in expensive blankets while Herb Alpert toots and sways” and “Every storm a myth. The toilet tank refills with creek, smell of mold, sometimes tiny leaves in the bowl” with traces of the internal, “Soon enough, I can tell, one of us will feel empty while the other is full and we will treat this as a zero-sum game. Who gets the most from knocking down grass blades?” Internal observations mesh with those of the natural world; we are apart of but also apart from the natural world.
In a move that I found downright brilliant, Sweeney, in the entry, “Shotpouch Cabin, Oregon, Truth/Hunger/Names, Day 2, Evening” writes, “It looks like the truth is, you go out into the woods to find yourself and find only what you brought in with you.” This will be no record of pithy self-discovery—by day two Sweeney has summarily dispensed with the wherever-you-go-there-you-are of so many self-discovery via travel narratives. Since the narrator knows he is the baggage (we all are, no?), he can move on to deeper, more honest inquiries.
Later entries turn outward. To childhood, to others, to music, to all things not in the woods. Total seclusion is neither an answer or a possibility. From another trip,
I had forgotten how beautiful the world is. Now we take our shoes off on the gray sand and as the waves explode in exaggerated gestures on the teeming rocks, I exclaim: Wow! Amazing!(…) Even wonder gets tiresome. (…) I try to find myself apart from you, out in the woods, and leave you warm the best I can. But we are here together. I have already fled.
By the Day Five Evening entry, the concerns narrow: the speaker is directly responding to what the outdoors does to him. The wildness isn’t so much a spectacle as it is an emotional state. When the questions are coming so fast and hard, there is no room for awe. The speaker homes in on his purpose. “I went out in the woods to run something other than from.”
This is not a Man v. Nature story, but rather one man assaying himself in relation to a specific aspect of nature. The refrain “I went out into the woods to find…” (myself, my children, what was wrong but nothing was, etc.) starts a series of prose poems that appear throughout the book. Each is a small parable of sorts. Maybe not a lesson learned, but a question acknowledged.
I went out in the woods to find myself, but found me, huddled behind a rock, mourning that I hadn’t found myself. The woods stared at me like a drunk accountant. Finally I crumpled. (…) Then he lifted me by the skin of my neck and stood me on my feet like a puppet. he pulled my spine out and climbed inside my skin. It became a simple task for us to find our way back to town. (…) Everything is much easier now.
In another, “At night, the dogs’ eyes stood out like planets orbiting me, but I had resolved that my heat was no more my heat than it was theirs.” The speaker longs to be “a part of” while also acknowledging he is fully aware that he is, if not out of place, then a temporary resident. That the revelations are spare and with grace makes this nature narrative both useful and believable. The language used implies quest, yet these poems are tidier. The mere seven days in the woods does not allow time for sprawl.
A series of short poems titled after the scientific names of various flora are less directly narrative than the prose poems. A possible interpretation is that those particular plants evoked the scenes and images listed, or that some rubric or system is at work. These pieces serve as resting spots amongst the longer pieces, and also as a reminder that one of the ways we, as humans, deal with the wild is to categorize it. (If we name a thing, then it is ours?)These brief poems feel like a fallen tree one comes upon on a hike. We stick our faces near its moss and wonder about its history while it offers a place to rest. “Anomodon minor” (a type of moss), in total:
Old money, bells
Bison hunched like a cathedral
In circles underwater
Even the weather is infinite and bored
Still other pieces read as theater directions. Written in the collective first-person, they are open to interpretation. “The performance sustains those of us who aspire to its grand autonomy. When WE need assurance WE venture into the forest.” The WE referred to could be the persons on the trip or all of humanity. The opening piece establishes GREEN as the overriding factor, a conceit that carries through the text. Perhaps the theater is all spaces untouched by humans.
Sweeney acknowledges the impossibility of finding an empty place, since upon its “discovery” it is immediately inhabited. He knew this, and we know this. Yet we still hope and search. And want. Meanwhile, this book allows for imagination and conjecture, teaches that no resolution is a resolution in and of itself.
But soon a sneaking feeling creeps in. Even in the forest,
WE discover that WE disrupt our own explorations.
There is something more, WE begin to suspect.
WE wander in search of a place without us. An empty
Linda Michel-Cassidy writes criticism and conducts interviews for venues such as The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, Electric Literature, and Heavy Feather Review. Her writing appears in Rattle, Catamaran, Tahoma Review, No Tokens, Eleven Eleven, and others. Michel-Cassidy’s story collection, When We Were Hardcore, is to be published in early 2024. She lives on a houseboat in Northern CA and in an old adobe in Northern New Mexico.