If ever a man could “think in English” but “speak in Spanish,” “dream in Gaelic but . . . curse in Russian,” it is Juan Sweeney. He was “born in an orphanage of fire” and thus considers himself “what the night coughed up on its shore.” His “lies are honest”—he once “spent a decade in prison, / or maybe just a long night”—and, same as every upright citizen, he enjoys the presence of flowers and dogs: “A flower is beautiful, yes? / And the genitals of a dog / are its flower / and therefore, beautiful, / yes?” Juan Sweeney is a “simple man,” one that likes to “watch wolves eat the grass” and plans to one day “sleep through [his own] death.” In all likelihood Juan Sweeney does not love you. He may, however, feel the need to woo you until, helpless, you cannot resist.
Who is Juan Sweeney, aka Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre? He is a man that, according to translator (and familial descendant) Chad Sweeney’s introductory note “preferred riding on the backs of trains to being seated inside . . . loved cheese and whiskey and has often been compared to the troubadour poet, Cavalcanti, for his lifestyle of travel and intrigues with women of the court. He inspired the characterization of Cervantes’ journeyman, Don Quixote, and paradoxically of Byron archetypical hero.” As translated by Chad Sweeney, an accomplished poet in his own right, Juan’s work is ethereal, hypnotic, often surreal. “The cosmos is a baby / blinking at its reflection. // It’s never seen rain, / this first rain / arriving in cataracts of white light,” the opening stanzas of poem #21 assert. (Juan Sweeney was as unconcerned with titling his work as he was with a beautiful woman’s relationship status.) Elsewhere, “elevators [bear] straight down / into the wells of mountains” and “the moon / dangles bracelets of thin light / in the mangroves” while the “calls / of extinct birds” fill so many bountiful “canyons,” canyons that same moon brightly shines into.
Nearly all the poems in Wolf’s Milk are short, contained on a single page or page and a half, and many of them incorporate what has (since Juan Sweeney’s heyday) become somewhat “standard” poetic language and imagery—there are a lot of different variants on the figurations light makes, and we hear often of the sun and moon, the stars, the sky, the sea, dusk, divinity, dawn. Coming from a man born “centuries ago” (and one that conversely “has yet to be born”), these universal themes are understandable; there is a good reason why they endure to this day. And decades before they were adopted by the masses, Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre roundly made them his own. In poem #47 he writes:
I’m looking for a language that can see God
away from his jailors,
God on all fours digging
in her potatoes, without even shoes
and without that terrible hat
from the cold distance of prayer
looks like a white city.
Whether Juan Sweeney ever actually existed or whether Chad Sweeney invented him—made him up in the same way one might, as a child, make up an imaginary friend, one with fantastically otherworldly powers or senses—makes little difference. As Juan Sweeney’s Arabian Grandmother relates in the volume, we are all “stories” to some degree, both of our own creation and of the others around us. In asserting his failures as a translator—“I was rarely able to preserve Sweeney’s Andalusian double entendre, musicality or sporadic rhyme”—Chad Sweeney admits that, on an aesthetic level, he “does not like [Juan Sweeney’s] poetry much.” For reasons known only to him, moreover, there is one sentence in the book that he “simply refused to translate.”
This lack of poetic identification seems fitting. We don’t get to pick the members of our family, nor what their personalities and temperaments are like. What we’re born into is what we’re stuck with, for better or worse. Chad Sweeney’s personal opinion of him notwithstanding, one would be hard pressed to think of—to imagine—a more notable, enigmatic relative than the esteemed Spanish / Irish poet Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre, owner of seventeen grandmothers and direct descendant of both the pagan king Sweeney the Mad and the mystical lobo pastor of Mt. Ararat. He is truly a man and way of believing unlike any other. Who is Juan Sweeney? He is that which provides light where there once was darkness, provides sweetness to complement the sour, humor and merriment to assuage pain. He is the beauty of myth itself—as Chad Sweeney makes abundantly clear.