'All my lies are honest'
A review of Chad Sweeney’s ‘Wolf’s Milk’
Wolf’s Milk: The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney, translated by Chad Sweeney, begins with an epigraph by the mythic Juan Sweeney himself: “The letter before A is silence.” This epigraph is having pure fun with form while it issues a grave statement about the nature of creation — like the poems of this collection. This book of translations of Juan Sweeney’s writings — which Chad Sweeney reportedly discovered “on shreds of paper in the walls of Sweeney Castle in Oklahoma, where I was born and where Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre presumably passed away, though his body soon disappeared from the family crypt” — is an ingenious project about the relationship between the act of translation and the lyric persona.
Who was Juan Sweeney? Wolf’s Milk provides us with some information about him, which we immediately take to be tongue in cheek: he “loved cheese and whiskey,” he was “a direct descendent of the pagan king Sweeney the Mad,” and he was so loyal that he “regularly visited all seventeen of his grandmothers, and you should too.”
Juan Sweeney, as the persona of these poems, allows us to meander through numerous locales inside and outside of time: Spain, Dublin, one of Shahrazad’s stories, Bolivia. As an object, this book is also — well — witty. Nate Pritts’s blurb on the back cover reads, “When I was a child, my aunt would read the poems of Juan Sweeney to me in Spanish from a scroll that seemed to disintegrate in her hands.” The poems of Wolf’s Milk are framed playfully, and as readers, we are supposed to carry this with us as we view them, with “Juan Sweeney’s” Spanish verses on the left side of the page and Chad Sweeney’s translations on the right. Yet, Wolf's Milk is not a game about the concept of translation. Instead, this book, comprised of fifty-five numbered but unnamed poems, absolutely demands to be read with all of the nuances of a lyric collection.
Poem 20, which contains the “wolf’s milk” image of this collection’s title, resonates with a quiet beauty, its imagery presented to us in a mythic mode:
The wolves let me ride them
and muzzle their ears with my chin.
They’ve taught me it’s wolf’s milk
silvers the clover and poplar leaves
at night. They’ve clothed me in
their smell, and given me
a name which cannot be translated,
so I guard them while they sleep.
It is important to note that the wolves have both “clothed” the speaker inside “their smell” (a disguise as well as a moment of transformation) and anoint the speaker with “a name which cannot be translated.” The second poem of the collection also speaks to a refusal of translation. It begins, “It’s too easy to accuse God / of infanticide” and ends with “When you translate this / don’t translate this.” The poems of Wolf’s Milk, which at first seem to present a project of translation, ultimately become self-reflexive: a voice is caught in an impossible sort of present where it knows it is being translated. In the original Spanish version, the “translated” voice must have already been expressing itself at such a moment of crisis, anticipating the hunt for origins (or, even authenticity) that the project of translation invites.
Wolf’s Milk presents us with a beautiful paradox. Through the art of translation, we receive an art of persona. Even so, these poems delightfully comment on and obscure the possibility of even searching for the essence of “Juan Sweeney”: as original ancestor, or, author. In a recent interview, Chad Sweeney says that “The speech act is an attempt to cheat death by climbing back into the womb where form and emptiness are not separate.” The translations of Wolf’s Milk seek to climb back into such a space, “where form and emptiness are not separate,” and acknowledge that this yearning is, by its very nature, a challenge to the lyric utterance itself.
We must also remember that the lyric persona is already a translation of sorts, a translation that yields a version of self from — and in — the voice of another. Wolf’s Milk takes itself so seriously in its playful dynamic between the mysterious ancestral poet and the very real translator (who says, “Admittedly, I do not like his poetry much”) because it is making a smart statement about the inaccessibility of the origins of one’s own stories.
Consider how the speaker of poem 23 views “autobiography”:
I stood like a tree and
fluttered when the wind blew.
Woodpeckers watched me carefully
in case I was planning an attack.
I was planning an attack.
The womb was my first house.
Its garden was the world.
Claiming agency over the autobiographical is an attempt that is as willed as an “attack.” Yet, Wolf’s Milk begins with the theme of inaccessible origins fairly neutrally. The first poem of the collection begins with a tone of admission more than anything else:
At least my lies are honest.
Night goes tuning its guitars,
tossing its magnolias into disarray,
and spinning a rough wool
from the last stanzas of dusk.
Notice how the evening sky is derived from poetry itself: the “last stanzas of dusk” signals the end of night via a formal description of the end of a poem. It is important to note that not only is translation itself a vital theme for Wolf’s Milk, but so is creation (poetic and cosmic), as in poem 21, where “The cosmos is a baby / blinking at its reflection.”
But what does it mean for the speaker — the mythic Juan Sweeney, “the most mysterious and influential Spanish/Irish poet to have ever lived” — to take “a name which cannot be translated,” in the words of poem 20, so that “no poet may trap them / into his verses”? It is important to remember that the very first line of this collection of poems is “At least my lies are honest.” One must consider the way in which a persona can be a kind of “honest” lie.
A persona poem, a really good one, reads as a real voice — even while it is a fiction. And Wolf’s Milk, though comprised of fifty-five poems, tempts us to read them as a kind of giant poem — issued by a single, giant personality. In this light, the collection’s epigraph, “The letter before A is silence,” becomes especially important. For a collection of translations so concerned with issues of making and remaking (voice, past, poem), this epigraph invites us to consider the impossible question about what exists prior to world creation (an overarching concern that has haunted thinkers as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions). But “The letter before A is silence” also asks us to think about what a collection is, via a moment prior to the first enactment of the lyric voice in the collection, as well as how such a collection is made and what it represents.
And so, “At least my lies are honest,” Wolf’s Milk begins. What constitutes the beginning of the body of a work belonging to a lost (or, in this case, made-to-be-lost) person? Such a question begs us to think about the authority of the lyric voice as a creative voice. How does the immediately present text interact with its prior text, the poem prior to translation? How does translation itself invite persona into a new version? Are all translations personas, of a sort, masking the voice of the new author? Wolf’s Milk answers these questions by charming its way out of them — and by charm I mean delight, as well as the kind of transformation that belongs to the realm of magic — thus fulfilling its own important, grave, and beautiful project.