Winter Tennis, by Todd Swift
Reviewed by Jacob McArthur Mooney
Todd Swift, the poet behind the recent collection Winter Tennis, is a busy Montreal-born Londoner known as an editor at the popular webzine nth position and several anthologies, as well as being the author of three previous collections of poems. Apart from all this, he is something of a poetry aristocrat, having hosted a series of inventive poetry cabarets in unlikely places like Budapest, Hungary. Chief among his accomplishments is his success in building a name for himself in the stifling British poetry market despite being concerned with the present state of the world and being less than 100 years old.
Swift, above all else, is a formalist. This doesn’t mean that he writes forever to the blueprints of a pre-determined form, but that he is obsessed with the sonic make-up of his work. Everything he writes sounds great when read quickly and aloud, though doing so runs you the risk of missing the poems’ rich density. Observe how this selection from The Shape of Things to Come climbs down the page using in-rhyme and assonance as a sort of irregular metronome keeping the poem from growing too loose:
…a broken broom used to brush
the webs from daydreaming boys
in math exams; a rack of lamb;
a donut convention; a depleted
pension; the sort of position
churchmen don’t like to mention;
Of course, the problem with keeping a dog on a tight leash is that it sometimes looks like the animal is leading its master and not vice versa. And in fairness, there are a couple of lines in Winter Tennis where we can see the rhyme coming several words before it happens, but they are astonishingly rare for the kind of poetry that Swift likes to write. The maturity of his dialogue with form is evidenced by how form itself becomes a sort of reoccurring motif in the work. Packaging commonly stands-in for what we assume it to contain: clothing in lieu of the human body, a horse’s carriage in lieu of the cargo inside. Todd Swift sees borders everywhere.
The oddest of Swift’s experiments is the deceptively free-verse-looking I Empty My Wallet, which is just what it sounds like: an inventory of the speaker’s wallet. Here the rhythmic economy that predominates throughout Winter Tennis is given a laughing push out the back door in favour of lines that, with the benefit of number sequences and the Caps Lock key, can sometimes take the better part of a minute to pronounce your way through. Here is a section from the first stanza:
Movie we saw (Frida); lottery ticket that didn’t win
(01 02 06 09 30 31) bought a week after we married.
Receipt for a coffee shop in Hungary I used to name
Café Alibi. “Your final fitting is”– a stub for my
Wedding suit. I’ll keep that …
Certainly, the list of poetic facilities that I Empty My Wallet cares about shares little overlap with those that make up the obsessions in poems like The Shape of Things to Come. However, it’s important to remember that I Empty My Wallet is very distinctly a form poem; its lasting impression is derived from the rules that structured its creation. The incredibly stringent form is this: a list poem detailing all the things found in a (possibly fictional) pocket. In this way I Empty My Wallet is among Winter Tennis’s most structured experiments, and yet it deliberately shares none of the tightness and efficiency of poems like The Shape of Things.. that don’t specifically come from poetic traditions which place a high value on either tightness or efficiency. It’s with these little thought-puzzles (can we call them “paradoxes” and still respect ourselves?) that Swift really shows us how he’s onto something. It’s why he’s one of the most exciting emerging poets around (being British, he doesn’t get to be an “established poet” until he’s dead).
While Swift’s formal fireworks are exhilarating to word-hounds like ourselves, what really drives Winter Tennis forward is the means to which this arsenal is used. At his very best, Swift seems to get that while a sonnet with a pop-cultural theme is not in any way original in this era of anachronistic irony, a poem that holds itself to the same formal intensity and manages to talk freely about, say, the Montreal Expos, or post-Soviet Russia, is one of the few revolutionary avenues left for poetry to explore. It’s in the slant-rhyming syncopation of poems like The Serious Business and The Ministry of Emergency Situations where Swift’s modern-day subjects (in both cases, the stake of the individual in the New World Order) are polished so pristinely that while the reader knows that their authorship has to be early 21st century, there is evidence to suggest an earlier era at play on the periphery. Whether talking about something that happened yesterday or sixty years ago, Swift employs the same flat past tense and holds back on the identifying details. The effect is chilling; this is the clearest indication I’ve seen, in any form of literature, of an artist being eager to place this decade on the same plane of history as the ones that preceded it. Whether or not this is politically or culturally expedient is a completely different question, but either way, what Swift is doing is unique. And it’s unique, ironically, because it reminds me of Auden, and of Yeats, of whole centuries resplendent with what’s been done before.
Todd Swift, come home. We’ll like you more over here than they do over there.