Hawaii Pacific Review: HPR 2012 Book Reviews

How to Live on Bread and Music
By Jennifer K. Sweeney

Perugia Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9794582-2-4
Reviewed by Alisha Kong

 How to Live on Bread and Music by Jennifer K. Sweeney is a compilation of poetry pieces that truly personify the quintessence of time.  Each poem is sensibly crafted, tracing profound memories of the poet’s subjective life encounters.  Sweeney’s artistry is further enhanced by the manifold themes she intertwines from one poem to the next–themes that range from family, friends, and childhood memories to observations, thoughts, and travels encounters.  Such topic diversity feeds the soul and quenches the thirst for a fresh outlook and perspective, effectively making her pieces relevant to any reader. 

Through her preliminary poem “Nocturne,” which carries an image of night time and stillness, Sweeney summons readers to quiet their fast-paced lifestyle and turn the volume up on their awareness and sensory receptors.  “Maybe you hear a song or maybe you don’t. / That is the choice we are always making,” she notes in the final stanza, hinting to readers the value in our everyday surroundings if we are willing to stop and appreciate what they have to offer.  The use of words like “maybe” and “choice” showcase Sweeney’s skill and ability to touch the hearts of the reader without forcing her opinions on them.  The message she conveys is that observation is an opportunity, which puts you in a new frame of mind and makes you more attentive for the poems that are to come.

Following the preliminary poem, Sweeney’s book is divided into five parts.  As each part transitions from one to the next, you get a feel for a theme of innocence, how that innocence turns into observation, how that observation becomes a reflection, how that reflection leads to recollections, and how those recollections teach valuable life lessons for the future.

The first section takes the reader back to a time of purity and child-like innocence, using the human body as a symbol.  “The Silence of Girl” is a poem that narrows in on the imagery of a mother-daughter relationship.[, reminding the reader of the love and the chastity that builds the bond--omit]:  “The girls carry their mothers in their bodies, / the facades and the truths of them // …Their bodies are filled with pockets, / eyes raw with secrets.”  The reference to the body represents how daughters unknowingly carry with them a piece of their mothers and expresses how aging sheds our innocence, leaving our souls empty.  The author provides a solution with her final poem of the section called “How To Live On Bread and Music”:  “Into the fire your life goes // … and the song is the yeast / when the body wants / and it wants fills empties / as the day fills empties / …Feed the rest of the body any tune, / any note will do.”  Through this poem, the author offers a solution to the emptiness by saying that songs and music can feed the vacancy of our bodies and souls.

The section that follows focuses on how innocence becomes observation and consists of a single poem called “The Listeners,” which makes frequent reference to the object of old music records and turntables.  The author writes, “Tracing circles with my body in the air / a-spin adrift // if a tree could record a year on a circumference of sap / what multifold was my life being etched on?”  Sweeney uses the image of the music records to symbolize the record of her own life, since songs and music often tell our life stories through lyrics and also through their attachment to memories.  In this way, Sweeney evokes on our hearing sense and uses the record on a turntable as a figurative object reflecting life’s changes.

Sweeney transitions her observations into a thinking state of mind in part three of her book.  She reflects on the past, and the throat becomes a recurring object.  In her piece called “5 O’ Clock Poem,” Sweeney writes, “The dryness in my throat / is familiar but not comfortable, //…The train is always approaching always pulling out. / What I mean to say is we live in the illusion / of beginnings and endings.”  Here, the poet experiences an epiphany concerning the equivocal meanings behind every encounter.  She begins to question things, and in her poem “How to Feed an Orchid” she says, “Clarify the relationship. / It is you being fed and the orchid / who spoons blossoms in your mouth.”  The way that the author uses nature and expresses how the orchid flower is the thing that is feeding us instead of the other way around makes us think about the daily routines we commit to and how those daily routines mean quite the opposite from the obvious. 

The Arcata and Mad River Railroad” is the only poem that makes up Sweeney’s fourth part of the book, which focuses on her recollections of old possessions and the meanings of those possessions to her life.  She uses the object of a railroad track to symbolize the memories that trail our past.  She writes, “Something lost / fallen precisely / upon tracks / something sacrificed / placed oh so carefully / welded down / by the hot iron of motion,” which gives the meaning that the fast paste lifestyles that we live sometimes causes us to lose meaning in our lives.  She later says, “How our things speak for us and what you’ve left behind // (tree house, sister, tradition, ambition) // is continually arriving as it is found and found and found.”  Through these lines, Sweeney is trying to say that although we might forget about important memories, eventually, we do find those missing pieces that define our identity.

The fifth and final part of the book holds a theme of life lessons.  She focuses on various objects in this section that express transition or change, such as a spider spinning a web or a bird soaring with his wings.  In her poem entitled “Erie Central Station,” Sweeney says, “I’d like to think every night contains a fissure / where a couple of strangers are cast / in the grand light of an approaching train, / not the station where the train stops / but the station where the station stops, / and they choose something for which / they are completely unprepared.”  She uses a train at a train station to metaphorically represent us as individuals and the unpretentious journey that lays ahead for us in the future.  Her final poem entitled “Song for a White Balloon” also captures the optimistic outlook on the future.  The very last two lines say, “the world is possible / and beyond human,” which leaves the reader with hope in a better tomorrow.

Sweeney’s book is all about change and growth, as each section is dedicated to innocence, observations, reflections, recollections, and lessons – all of which connect to the growth we experience in our own lives.  No matter which stage of your life you might be in, each part has a poem that calls out to your emotions.  How To Live On Bread and Music is a must read for the people who are in search of answers to life’s twists and turns.  If you are hungry for a fresh perspective on life, a different frame of mind, a vacation away from troubling circumstances, or just a trip down memory lane, pick up a copy of Sweeney’s poetry collection.  You won’t be disappointed.