The Century of Dreaming Monsters by John Sweet
Reviewed by Dominic Scopa
The Century of Dreaming Monsters, the winning manuscript of the LUMMOX Poetry prize, begins with many poems that stamp the premise that all empirically invalid beacons, such as religion, blind people. The speaker in “dumping the ashes: a vision” expresses this destructive faith: “I’ve never believed that / christ was a beacon / whatever light you choose to / follow only / makes you blind” (Sweet 23-27). This nullification of beacons manifests through several mediums in the collection. The speaker in “poem of concentric circles” agitatedly declares the futility of looking towards the past and future for solace: “and you can start bitching about how / things used to be with stopping / to remember how goddamn / miserable you were / you can fix the back door but can’t / keep the house from falling down” (Sweet 7-12). The past does not offer comfort. It presents an illusion of comfort that masks, “how goddamn miserable you were.” Similarly, the future fails. The repairs to the front door function as the illusion. They only serve to decorate the house that rots from the interior. This intense focus on the momentary permeates “a crippled song on sunday evening:” “a head filled with poems and / all of them more real / than god / everything i can hold in my / hands enough until the / day that it isn’t” (Sweet 12-17). This poem begs the question: what is to be done if all beacons are disintegrated?
This internal interrogation enacted by the reader reveals another pervasive theme in the collection, attention to natural holiness. The speaker in “laurel’s blues” observes “a thin crack where / sunlight came in to / illuminate a dusty / corner of the bedroom / and what i felt / was holy / a small piece of a / larger emptiness” (Sweet 29-36). Interestingly, this holiness arrives just after the sister of a suicide victim calls the speaker to tell him the news. Perhaps, this sensation of the overbearing present sweeps the reader into this statement. The last prevalent theme, which directly results from the previous theme, concerns the presence of oppressive establishments. These regimes, most notably the American system, undermine the present. “immortal years” evinces this sentiment: “better weapons / by which we mean a / more efficient way to kill a / greater number of people…/ a chance to practice / the fine art of torture / to step up and / truly fucking shine” (Sweet 6-9, 17-20). Several anti-establishment poems reflect this frustration.
The poems in Sweet’s collection move back and forth from these themes and the reader must interpret their direction. One element is totally illuminated; that past and future beacons cannot provide comfort. While some of these poems initially seem overly didactic and preachy, the overall integration of them hones a sharp and poignant edge. The lasting footprint left in the sand speaks of this: “the government is / your only true enemy / the rivers have all been poisoned in / the name of progress / in the end there is / nothing i really / want more than silence.”