Sarah Schweig

University of Iowa Press, 2016

In Sarah Schweig’s first collection, Take Nothing With You, she acknowledges both the futility and necessity of forming coherence amidst an unjust and unpredictable existence. In “Shift” she writes: “We work and sleep until somebody slips. Until / somebody leaves. One thing I’ve learned, and it still needs work: / The stranger the lights the more arbitrary the lord.” For Schweig, in a world that is arbitrarily harsh and often unforgiving, beauty resides in the mundane and can save us from it—whether it is the beauty of a working-class immigrant humming Tchaikovsky or a bird’s severed wing in the morning light.

Exploring violence, class, and racial inequality in the first section of the book, Schweig seeks an explanation, even a logic, for pain and injustice, but answers elude her. In “Contingencies,” a self-described treatise on meaning, she asks:

What is the meaning of this?
Had I known, I would not have begun it. I am walking through it
to understand. Matter becomes Boy becomes Man becomes
BLANK….I would like to say Beauty
where there is a BLANK. I can’t.

Instead, she joins readers who are also continuously searching among the signs and symbols of everyday experience. In “Brighton Beach” she writes: “Along the shore lie those who know there is no heaven, and no answers / to our questions, and that ships leaving piers look like distant chandeliers.”

The most successful poems appear as Schweig’s subjects become increasingly autobiographical towards the end of the book. In “To a Daughter” she tenderly addresses her unborn child while acknowledging the pain caused by her alcoholic partner: “I watched a boy by the river / catch a brilliant fish. He held it up for his father to see. / It wriggled in the air for water, like a prize or kept / promise, then went still. Life left it, you see, and it was better.” It is in these moments of candor, surrounded by stark imagery, that the poet’s voice pierces sharply and succinctly, both affirming and mourning her reality.

In “Rooms” the speaker asserts: “I’ve begun / walking from one room / through the others. / I’ve begun turning on / the lights.” While acknowledging the irrefutable human state of aloneness, reflected upon via lost lovers and friends and in the abandonment of a father, Schweig maintains and demonstrates, in lucid language, the need for hope.