Monday, September 15, 2008


The flavor of John Sweet's first full length book, Human Cathedrals, mocks the writer's name; there is an utter absence of sugar. Salt is shot—sometimes heaped—in wounds, some gaping and bleeding, some disfigured with scars crisscrossing, and some still waiting infliction.

Behind the understated, slate cover of Human Cathedrals lie frequent references to the color grey and slight variations thereof: purplegrey, bluegrey, yellowgrey, pale grey and every shade of grey in between. At the brightest end of John Sweet’s spectrum, we have a half dozen mentions of blue. From The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary: blue adj. 2: melancholy; also: depressing. One is left to contemplate a conceivable connection between the cover’s complexion and the content beneath it.

Spending an afternoon in Human Cathedrals is like finding a camera at an estate sale with a roll of film still inside. When the film is developed, a slice of someone’s life tears through the skin and into the deepest cellar of belief. Repeat appearances of specific body parts grace these snapshots: thirteen mentions of hands, eight of bones, six of the heart, four of the throat, three of fingers, two of lips, skin, closed eyes, sharp teeth and a skull, one of the ribcage, neck, tongue, wrist, fist and spine.

Behind the black veil of the human cathedral, desperation, anger, failure, guilt, confusion, terror, sorrow and self destruction rumble through the poet’s tug-of-war with faith. From de chirico’s lament: "...and if i give my son only one gift in his small beautiful life it would be the word escape"; from myself a father: "...for this reason alone i place my foot on the throat of god and press...", and in the book’s opener, waiting for the day to begin: "...and it’s not an answer i’m after here but a voice loud enough to drown out my own".

Occasionally we glimpse, always from a distance, an altruistic bond to his wife and son, though within him there seems to exist detachment from the two he most reveres. Sweet presents us with a collection of raw snapshots—a boy lit on fire, the carnage of war, runaway teens, the cremation of his father shortly before his wedding, men leaving their children, abused girlfriends, suicide, alcoholism, starving mothers and ill children—a succinct and graphic exhibit of destruction.

The confessions shared in Human Cathedrals are long on suffering, short in length; it is almost as if Sweet could not endure his desperation for more than a page at a time. Although the poems sting while entering the bloodstream, you will be drawn, again and again, to the candid cathedral of human desolation offered by the shadow of John Sweet. Owning the book is like carrying a mysterious, beautiful stone in your pocket—you are never quite certain whether you’ve been cursed or blessed.

- Shelly Reed

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