September 2010

Elizabeth Hildreth

poetry

The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre by Chad Sweeney

Maybe it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Unless you happen to be reading The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre (Forklift, Ink., 2010). In which case, you can.  

Here’s a description of the cover: Soaked in wine and baked in the oven. Let me repeat: This book, quite literally, has been soaked in wine and baked in the oven. Why? Well, we just don’t know. Also? On the front of the book, there appears to be a very tiny person walking through acres and acres of snow with a pair of gym shorts and red tube socks on. And on the back, there’s a lone red flower. Not sure what kind of flower it is, but it doesn’t matter because it looks more like a rooster perched on a bunch of bricks than a flower anyway. Maybe someone is buried under the pile of bricks, too. It sort of looks that way, but it’s hard to say.* 

All right. The words inside and the entire concept, thankfully, are just as insane as the outside. The story goes that poet Chad Sweeney wrote a book in Spanish, assigned it to a character Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre, gave Juan a backstory, and then translated Juan’s poems into English. 

Here are ten things you should know about the enigmatic, charismatic Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre: 

1. Nobody knows that much about him.
2. He grew up in Andalusia, Ireland, Oklahoma, and Bolivia.
3. Vincente Huidobro wrote in a letter to Sweeney, “Reading these poems, one desires annihilation and love in equal measures. One tastes metal, as of an asteroid belt of old trains passing overhead.”
4. He preferred riding on the backs of trains to being seated inside.
5. He inspired the characterization of Don Quixote and Byron’s archetypical hero.
6. His writing was diverse in scope, including such titles as Wet Book of the Otter and Instructions to My Translator. These also remain lost.
7. Near the time of Sweeney’s disappearance, he burned all his own books and in following years, his books were removed from all the world’s major libraries.
8. Sweeney claimed to have thought in English but wrote in Spanish so that executioners of the Inquisition and the future fascists of the Spanish Civil War would “choke to death” on his poems.
9. It is rumored that a complete set of his works remains in a locked room in the Library of Tlón, to which no one has gained access in centuries.
10. Sweeney’s cousin Alicia Ramirez Ortega Hurtado Matamoros Pardo Casado Santamaría Bustos Hortiguela López López read the madness in Juan’s eyes and thus hid this small manuscript, which was discovered by Chad Sweeney in 2005 in the walls of the ancestral Sweeney castle in Oklahoma and published this year by Forklift Ink. Spoiler alert: I heard through the grapevine that more work by Juan Sweeney might have recently been discovered but don’t quote me on that. 

Chad Sweeney also writes in the translator’s note “Admittedly, I do not like [Juan’s] poetry much and have tried to improve on it when possible. Nevertheless, the work of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre has branded me forever, and I cannot look away.” 

Well, speak for yourself, Chad. We love Juan, at least the way he is now. We’re not sure what you’ve done to improve him as his translator, but whatever it was: Bueno. He too has branded us forever. We cannot look away either. We never wanted to in fact. 

The book contains 20 poems, all numbered, and right away, in the first line of the book, we’re cast into the Sweeney sea, into the capacious and unreliable mind of Juan Sweeney. 

At least my lies are honest. 

Yes. At least. From there, we follow Juan on his journey, his tireless search for both the big and small things straddling the universe:

of all I’ve misplaced,
love letters to tyrants
encyclopedias in dead languages. 

All of this is for a larger purpose of course. In Juan Sweeney’s words

Just so,
the dandelions revolt
against mathematics.

Sometimes Juan feels hopeless and wants to give up, and so do we.  

#3

Better to be a man with a broom
Sweeping sand from the beach.
When you translate this
Don’t translate this.

Other times, he feels like God. He knows exactly what to do, and during those times, we too are ready to pounce on the world and wrestle it down. 

#4

My actions are elaborately planned.
Today for instance
I’m going to wash the mirror.

And sometimes, like everybody, Juan feels just asi asi, just mas o menos. And during those times, we too are simply... aqui. With our sheep and our Others. 

#5 

We rode
Our sheep to market and married the first hips that loved us.

Mostly though, Juan lives in the moment. He looks at the stuff we want to look at, daydreams about the things we like to daydream about.

#7

The world so new, mercury
hung from leaves. Everywhere
swords were stuck
in malachite and boys practiced
to be king. 

He stays in motion -- walking aimlessly, running wildly -- and we follow him.

#4

[…] I walk in the opposite direction.
If you live here long enough
you’ll know me.

#7

I had to run.
I ran downhill and picked up speed.

Sometimes fantastic things happen to him, just like in the movies:

#17

I slept inside the ice flower
And she inside the alphabet

#9

I washed the mother-of-pearl
breasts of Queen Isabel

#19

I’ve labored in secret
In the basement of the mayor’s mansion
trying to perfect the anti-bomb.

#16

I modeled, and for a while
the mannequins wanted my poncho.

But in the end (and all the way through actually) Juan recognizes he’s just a man. He will die like any other man. We feel our mortality and our humanness then, too. 

#15 

In the end I’ll sleep through my own death.
I’ll be somewhere else
when my name is spoken
like the silent grain inside the wood.
I’ll refuse to sign the certificate.
I’ll walk right past the officers
studying my watch like someone important
late for a meeting.

For all of its fun and punch, The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre is serious. It’s seriously fantastico. It has lines you will carry around with you the rest of your life, even if you live to be older than you ever wanted to be. It feels so small when you hold it in your hand, but it feels so big when you hold it in your head. It’s honest and humble and funny and has giant presence. It’s hard to have all that in one book, which is why most books don’t, but this isn’t most books. Go ahead and lick the pages, Cabernet. 

Lucky for us Juan’s Instructions to my Translator were never found. I can’t imagine how messed up this book would be if Chad Sweeney had followed an instruction manual -- even one that he wrote.   

*Correction: A late email from Chad Sweeney explains: The back of the book is a photograph of the Incan city of Macchu Picchu in Peru, and the front is the only photograph of Juan Sweeney ever taken, as he walked across a salt desert in southern Bolivia and leaves a crack in the earth behind him (a real crack, no snow). 

The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre by Chad Sweeney
Forklift, Ink.
48 Pages