In the Antarctic Circle, prose poems by Dennis James Sweeney, reviewed by Marin Killen

Dennis James Sweeney’s writing in In the Antarctic Circle (described as “hybrid narrative prose poems” by Autumn House Press) makes stillness, silence, and formlessness visible. Whiteness is both the inviting emptiness of a blank page waiting to be marked, and the terror of an unmappable landscape. The narrator and their only companion, Hank, stagger through this world that offers them nothing—the eternity and inertia of the landscape is so complete that even rot and mold are unable to grow. The book speaks through its white space, including blank moments and pages that communicate loss, mourning, alienation, and the inability to escape the stagnation of the present moment, a moment just before a climate disaster hits. The narrator asks for change from a marginal place, a place both empty and full to the brim with ghosts, scientists, the specter of climate change, and the occasional spark of blood on the snow.

In the Antarctic Circle is not Sweeney’s first step into environmental or travel writing. Sweeney published a series of poems, Notes from Malta, through Entropy in 2016 while visiting the country on a Fulbright fellowship. Alongside his career in education and his poetry and prose awards (including finalist for the National Poetry Series for In the Antarctic Circle), Sweeney works forEntropy as a small press editor and for Astrophil Press as a poetry editor. This experience shows through in Sweeney’s complex depictions of the Arctic, and especially in his titles. The title of every prose poem is a geographic coordinate. Using an address finder, we can choose to search each location, a process that will lead them not only to beautiful images of ice sheets, but also to countless articles about the effects of climate change in Antarctica. Though it may seem cryptic at first, Sweeney’s titles are emblematic of the research and real-world basis for the book.

In addition to the titles, many will notice other research features. First, the collection includes sets of quotes that mark various points throughout the book. Edgar Allan Poe and Toni Morrison follow the opening of the book with their descriptions of whiteness. The middle and back of the book contain quotes from articles on race in South Africa, the politics of scientific exploration, and literary criticism on “Antarctica in Fiction.” Altogether, the quotes create implicit connections for us; whiteness is not one thing, and Sweeney does not intend it to be read as such. Whiteness as a concept is racial, political, imaginative, and it has a deep history in American literary tradition. Many may find this to be both intellectually exciting and socially and environmentally aware.

Like whiteness, the landscape is both a reality and a concept. The images that Sweeney draws into his work to express this are captivating and vivid. In “69°57’ S 38°45’E,” there is a showcase of detail paired with commentary on the past and future: “Glacier walls. Grinning bearded ghosts pacing like Americans. Flagpoles and boots strew the tundra, spit out by the ice … The sound of their fists is the sound of a glacier refusing to crumble.” These lines bring out the purpose of Sweeney’s research and his inclusion of quotes—the political past of the Arctic circle is a key factor in the collection, and presents itself here as a literal specter.

As we move through the collection, many will begin to get a sense of an overall plot and may start to feel that the poems are part of some discovered logbook, a diary found in an abandoned shelter on the ice. This feeling comes from Sweeney’s keen ability with description as well as his talent at bringing out the human experience while still experimenting with greater themes. A great example of the narrator’s voice comes in “69°22’S 139°1’E,” when the narrator is touched by a bit of dark humor: “In the Antarctic Circle thanks is bitterness, flung at what we don’t have … We swivel our heads to take in the trappings of isolation and find that even they are sparse. Thanks for white. Thanks for winter. For the hole in the harpoon gun where the harpoon fits.” The sardonic humor opens up the theme of lack or emptiness. White, winter, and the hole in the gun are what the narrator can be thankful for. Sweeney goes on to write, “Thanks for the pits where our eyes go, for where breath travels, for the ducts that allow us to pass daily out of ourselves … A shy gift lies in it: the certainty of eventual thaw.” Here we get the hope along with the bitterness, white as a blank space to be filled rather than the horror of emptiness. Still, the dark joke is there, as the narrator gives thanks for lack.

Sweeney’s less hopeful version of the white landscape and whiteness itself comes out vividly in “74°35’S 111°0’W.” The sentences are simple in construction, but the ideas behind them are intense and provocative. Early in the poem Sweeney writes, “Formlessness tackles you and rubs snow into your eyes until you can see her.” In many ways this feels like the aim of the collection as a whole, to show us image after image of this unmappable landscape, this depiction of a frozen present, until something steps forward out of the blank whiteness. The tackling is necessary when the future hinges on movement and change—we, like the narrator, must eventually escape the Arctic and hope for the “eventual thaw.”

The Arctic, it seems, is a surprisingly relevant landscape for discussions of current events. Many will relate deeply to the call for change (environmental and otherwise) that Sweeney has woven into his white world. As an addition to the already extensive literary discussions of whiteness, the collection manages to lace history with the ability to conceptualize and imagine whiteness in a new way. Politics and history lurk in each poem as “ancient lies rise and gather blackly at the ceiling.” Whether Sweeney intended it or not, his poems on stagnation will resonate deeply with post-quarantine readers. His urgency towards change comes through stark and clear: “In a year, it—you—God! Everything! –will be white.”

In the Antarctic Circle, by Dennis James Sweeney. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Autumn House Press, March 2021. 96 pages. $16.95, paper.

Marin Killen is a graduate student studying literature at Winthrop University. Though she is currently in a literature program, she spent her undergraduate years exploring fiction and poetry at the College of Charleston, and graduated with a concentration in creative writing in 2020. Her favorite mediums include short stories, flash fiction, and prose poetry, and her most-loved topics are climate change, gender, and mental health.

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