GLOBE & MAIL (review) Toronto, Canada
Sward cuts deeply
By ROBYN SARAH
Saturday, December 4, 2004 – Page D34
What I would really like to say about The Collected Poems of Robert Sward would not be a book review. I would like to say: Listen to this! and quote a whole poem, then another and another, just letting the poems speak for themselves. As poetry goes, and especially poetry published in Canada, this is an unexpected book and a breath of fresh air.
How, except by quoting, can one convey the effect of lines like these from Kite , a poem of bereavement from a child’s perspective — no, from adult recall of that child’s perspective — no, from adult recall of the feel of that child’s perspective:
I still heard Auntie Blue
after she did not want to come down
again. She was skypaper, way up
too high to pull down. The wind
liked her a lot, and she was lots
and sky on the end of the string.
And the string jumped hard all
of a sudden,
and the sky never even breathed,
but was like it always was, slow
far-away blue, like poor dead
Auntie Blue was gone, and I could
think of her face. And the string
slowly for a long time. I was afraid
to pull it
down. Auntie Blue was in the sky,
just like God. . .
Sward, now 70 and a dual citizen, lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. Resident in Canada from 1969 to 1985, he taught at the University of Victoria and ran Soft Press for 10 years. His poetry appears now to be better known in the United States than in Canada. This is a shame, and one hopes this Collected Poems will remedy it. But it’s anybody’s guess, because Sward’s poetry runs counter to so much of what we have come to expect and accept as poetry here.
What is this book not ? It is not intellectually precious, trumped-up or sanctimonious. It does not take itself too seriously. It is not “confessional,” even at its most autobiographical. It does not tax us to understand what it is talking about. It is not prose, even when it most resembles prose. And it is not numbingly uniform in effect: Sward can write a dramatic monologue that is part stand-up comedy routine, part Talmudic discourse; he can give us child’s-eye whimsy, satirical prophecy or surrealist nightmare; he can write a classical sonnet that is metrically perfect and allusive, yet modern and hilarious ( Socrates at the Symposium ) or a found poem that takes the pulse of the times with sly irony ( Personal Stress Assessment ). Not every poem is substantial — the book has its share of pieces I would call lightweight — but this is a collected works, so their inclusion can be forgiven.
The heart and core of this book is a series of dramatic monologues and dialogues between father and son (beginning in Sward’s 2001 collection, Rosicrucian in the Basement , and ongoing in the subsequent Heavenly Sex ) the irrepressible aliveness and weird wisdom of which should win it a lasting place in the literature of our day. Sward’s Talmud-conversant father, of Russian-Jewish extraction — a Chicago-based podiatrist by profession — came unhinged after losing his wife and became (in the l950s) a Rosicrucian who practised his rites secretly in the basement. Under the eye of his bemused “dreamer” son, he evolved his own blend of kabbalistic, Christian hermetic and prescient New Age mysticism, which lent its colours to his medical practice as well as to his view of that son’s eventual career choice and several marriages.
Other remembered voices weave in and out of this remarkable sequence (grandfather, mother, step-mother, aunt, even a dog), but it is the father’s that dominates. A fully believable new American, steeped in old-world Yiddish culture even as he accedes to the professional class, he’s also a complex archetypal figure, or more than one: Jewish father, holy madman, Shakespearean fool — a sort of Touchstone meets Tevye the Dairyman. “Just a tiny crack separates this world/ from the next, and you step over it/ every day,/ God is in the cracks,” he tells his son, as he fits him for arch supports. “You have two fathers,/ one you can see,/ one who looks like me;/ and one you can’t,/ the father you’ll never see,” he tells him from his hospital bed in After the Bypass . “There is no place empty of God,” he says, and “Darkness is a candle, too./ So open the window in your chest./ Let the invisible fly in and out.” The cumulative effect of these crackpot mini-sermons, shot through with visionary insight, is more than humorous: It is to waken unexpected emotions and nudge the seeker in us all.
Sward’s voice might best be described as wonderstruck. By turns humorous and serious, ecstatic and perplexed, he is always fanciful, lively and life-affirming. His Collected Poems is that most unusual thing in contemporary Canadian poetry: a good-humored, gregarious and heartfelt book, abundantly human and unfeigned.
Montreal writer Robyn Sarah’s most recent poetry collection is A Day’s Grace.