God Is In the Cracks: A Narrative In Voices, by Robert Sward
Reviewed by Catherine Graham
“It’s all really one work, and, in a sense, I’ve never stopped,” muses Robert Sward in a Poetry Flash interview. Citizen of Canada and the U.S, Sward certainly hasn’t stopped, he’s been writing poetry for over fifty years. Born and raised in Chicago, author of over twenty books, he currently resides in Santa Cruz, California, but he’s brought the windy city with him. Memories from his formative years serve as the creative wellspring for much of Sward’s literary output including his latest collection: God Is In The Cracks: A Narrative In Voices, from Black Moss Press.
The book reads like a play, with monologues, dialogues, even stage instructions: Car door slamming behind us as we exit. It reads like a novella, with supernatural elements and a touch of magic realism. But free verse is the poet’s form of choice and Sward deftly fills this form with voice: mother, father, stepmother, stripper, son (Sward the young poet) and the family dog. These characters come to life throughout Sward’s skillful narrative and are, in his own words, “Best read in the order printed.”
Throughout the vocal tapestry, the voice of the wise and the wise-cracking father dominates. A Russian Orthodox Jew, a podiatrist by profession, he disseminates his passion for feet to his “round-shouldered, dreamer” son: “How many times do I have to say it / A pair of feet have 25000 sweat glands / Can produce eight ounces, a cup of perspiration in one day.
After the untimely death of his beloved wife the father grapples with the mysteries of the afterlife. He becomes a Rosicrucian and practices his “College of Invisibles” alone in the family home basement. “There are two worlds,” he says, lighting incense, “the seen and the unseen…” / Meat into spirit, darkness into light…/”. These are the themes of Sward’s collection: the visible and the invisible. “Just a tiny crack separates this world / from the next, and you step over it / every day / God is in the cracks.
The father’s personality leaps off the page and the narrative pops with his lyrical snippets. The motherless son, in need of guidance, asks his father to tell him how to pray: “Burst,” says the father, “burst like a star.” And when the father links his reverence for feet to his belief in the healing powers of a wedding, he shows his ability to tag the earthly with the sublime: “The socks come off and you make love.”
Yet the son, as an adult, lives through not one failed marriage but many. This stretches the father’s patience: “One, two, three…shame and more children / than you can count…/ How many times does a foot marry a foot?” Four times in fact as illustrated in the fourth section appropriately titled: “Marriage 1, 2, 3, 4.” Individual poems also read like scenes: “Kit Kat Club”, “He Takes Me Back as a Patient”, “Arch Supports – The Fitting”, give the collection a down-to-earth tone and guide the reading journey.
The father wrestles with his son’s romantic failures, through foot imagery of course, but eventually recognizes the humanity behind his son’s unorthodox behavior. We all make mistakes, his son is not alone. But not feet. Feet don’t fall. Feet, no matter what, are held in the highest light: “Truth is / people’s feet is too good for them.”
The first poem, in the last section, “Darkness Is A Candle Too” brings us to the end of the father’s life and is aptly titled “After the Bypass”. Even on his deathbed, the father continues to spout fatherly advice: “Don’t trust the world, son / It’s filled with holes. / The best thing is love.” He doesn’t stop there. He continues with another four lessons, the last of which ends with this powerful metaphor: “Death is made of eyes / made of eyes, dressed in eyes.” True to character, the father can’t resist tailing the profound with the comical: “But remember: you’re still gonna need money / when you die.”
Turns out what’s really needed, to get to heaven, is a dog: “Heaven is a place that cannot be found, / but if you got a dog / you can find it.”
Funny and poignant, simple yet complicated, Sward’s compelling and accomplished collection seams the crack between comedy and tragedy. Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, former book reviewer and feature writer for The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, soldier during the Korean War, creative writing instructor, Sward didn’t become a podiatrist like his father nor a doctor like his mother urged him to be, but he’s definitely taken on his father’s advice: “Some day you’ll write about arch supports.”
We’re glad he did.