New and Selected Poems 1957-2011 by Robert Sward
(Red Hen Press, 2011)
reviewed by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Robert Sward begins his New and Selected Poems with a disclaimer borrowed from the spiritual figure Ram Dass, “Old age is about harvesting whatever your life’s work has been.” Indeed Sward’s new book presents a harvesting of his long, productive career as a poet. Sward, who is now in his 70s and lives in Santa Cruz, CA, began his writing career in the 1950s. During this career, Sward has written over twenty books of poetry. At its heart, the collection follows a winding path that switches between views of seemingly opposite worlds: the domestic world and the divine, what’s forgotten and what’s remembered, the living and the dead. Walking this path where nothing is held back by imagined boundaries brings the epiphanies, or a sort of dual vision where one world intersects with another and, in doing so, illumes a truth that could not otherwise have been understood.
Throughout the collection Sward writes of the domestic world and its deep connection with the divine. “If God lived on earth…people would knock out all of His windows.” For Sward, the domestic life is simultaneously humorous and filled with epiphany. For example, in this exchange between a poet husband and his wife found in “My Muse,” the poet’s wife updates the idea of what a muse is to a twentieth century woman:
“Talk about muses,” I sulk,
“Yeats’ wife was visited in her dreams by angels
saying, ‘We have come to bring you images
for your husband’s poetry.’
“Yeah? So what?” she says. “It’s out of style.
I already do too much for you.”
Sward temporarily lost his memory when he was in a car accident in 1966, and that sense of amnesia haunts the domestic sphere of his poems. In “Mr. Amensia” the speaker meets a young mother who had gone fishing in Lake Michigan and catches him as if he is a deep dwelling fish. It’s not until the speaker emerges from the deep that he realizes he has been caught and rescued by his own wife and children. This sense of amnesia equally haunts the many intimate, domestic portraits of Sward’s children he includes in the collection. In “Hannah,” the speaker eats breakfast with “the smallest person in the world” whose “third eye is strawberry jam.” The speaker in “Water Breather” describes the seemingly unsurpassable distance he feels from his estranged son as “the hunger.”
Sward, who lost his mother at age 14, also writes poems that inhabit an emotive realm between the living and the dead. The young boy who loses his mother is filled with grief and anger at a god he had just come to understand, “At 14, I walk out / Looking / For stones / I might hurl into heaven.” But the ghost mother, who is summoned through the poems, isn’t soothing and comforting. Rather, she is a straightforward atheist and her portraits are weighted in the objects that make up a home such as beauty cream and cigarettes.
Mother applies Pond’s Beauty Cream. Her face glistens.
Massages her forehead with one hand, holds the other to her heart.
“What’s the point?” she asks, cigarette ablaze,
When she dies, they bury her not in a shroud, but in pancake make-up and best gray dress.
When the child asks this mother if there is an afterlife, his mother tells him to shape up and “‘You are my afterlife. / God help us.’” Sward’s poems about the loss of his mother are peppered with troubling wisdom from his father and grandfather as in “A Prayer for My Mother” when his Grandfather tells him “The Angel of Death is made entirely of eyes.”
Even though Sward is a poet that wanders between worlds, he is also a poet that is at times grounded in place. “Four Incarnations” presents a biographical epic that examines Sward’s beginnings as a poet and the act of poetry as based on a theory of Thoreau’s: “While at sea, I began writing poetry as if poems / to paraphrase Thoreau, were secret letters from/ some distant land.” In “Ode to Santa Cruz,” a poem written for the place where Sward finally moored, he defines the aesthetic of the college beach town in an energetic collage of disparate things:
A busload of German tourists
clam chowder, O scrubbed blue light
melon balls and watermelon shooters,
arcade, pink neon, roller coaster heart-shaped mirror.
The vast breadth of poetry included in this collection showcases the wisdom Sward has accumulated over his career as a poet. It is evident that Sward’s definition of poetry is as deep and wide as the life he has lived:
What is poetry? For me it’s the restrained music
of a switchblade knife. It’s an amphibious warship
magically transformed again into a basketball court, and
then transformed again into a movie theater showing
a film about the life of Joan of Arc. It is the
vision of an amnesiac, bleeding from a head injury,
witnessing the play of sunlight on a redbrick wall.
Indeed, the winding road offered by New and Selected Poems 1957–2011 is a fruitful, enlightening journey where we are mesmerized by the sounds and sites of a poet who has examined not only what poetry is, but what it means to live as a poet.