Encountering Heather Sweeney’s poetry is like entering into a memory you are certain lives in your body, but you cannot quite place as your own. It is nostalgic, validating, mischievously winking towards a deeper truth, yet never quite revealing itself. It is the voice in your head you are eager to recognize as your own, though its unique wit chews wryly on the world around itself with thrilling novelty. Her poetry is a street you’ve walked in your city, a high you’ve come down from, an exclamation in the back of your throat whispering yes, exactly this down the page— if only you had remembered it as beautifully.
Sweeney’s latest book, Dear Marshall, Language is Our Only Wilderness, is a poetry lyric oscillating between untitled prose blocks and letters addressed to the elusive recipient Marshall. It is an eccentric, dead pan California love story, with lover starring as both self and other, as ghost and “a wave I am biting at,” as stranger rewritten into the soulmate that is needed of them, as soulmate rewritten into the stranger that is needed of them, as “e. none of the above.”
Dear Marshall is a book about how to witness a life and make it real within the calamity of existence, picking up simple shards and marveling at their shapes stilling themselves in your hand: “I think we will look back on all this the same way we do lobotomies. Hardcore.” This is a book written “recklessly, into the present,” and Marshall arrives as tender witness— “I came to you wild and you were a fucking gentleman.”
The speaker writes to Marshall, “Dear Marshall, I’m still making these shapes in the ocean of your shoulder where birds survive and still themselves at dawn.” This is indeed a book that lives at dawn—ebbing from dream into reality, from too high to too sober, burgeoning the outline of a person beginning to illuminate yet still obscured by the moon, changing with the shadows and utterly captivating to gaze upon. “I try to make it look pretty because what else can I do?”
The letters to Marshall present a call out into the void: what is our reality except when we can hold a mirror up to ourselves? What is our reflection if there is no one there to behold it?
The speaker writes to Marshall, “You were always my witness. You never stopped me from myself.” Sweeney’s poems tether to the ear of Marshall, a witness who simply absorbs the infinite realities of the self that unfold onto the page—and this is the beauty of a recipient who need not reply. To show oneself to another, to rummage through your body and expose the profound minutiae that make up your time and space stamp, is to open the only entry point back into the self wild enough to instigate reflection and intimate enough to maintain the grit of honesty. If love desires oneness and the erotic desires separateness, this is a book that lives in the space of the erotic, exploring the sensualities of the self through the reaching towards other. “Sometimes I remember we are two different people…But I can only exist here. Without you.”
Sweeney’s letters to Marshall assert an existence and Marshall, as mute witness, dives into its depths—attending to the soot and eyeliner and “shitty hearts” that comprise its shape. And it is fascinatingly pretty, funny, surreal—all the things that make one desperate and courageous enough to enter the depths of someone else’s wilderness.
Marie Conlan is an artist living and writing in Colorado. Her first book, Say Mother Say Hand, was released through Half Mystic Press in 2020.