Seaway: new and selected poems, by Todd Swift
Reviewed by Tom Phillips
Gleaned from his four previous collections and garnished with more than a dozen new poems, Todd Swift’s ‘Seaway’ is both a ‘greatest hits’ collection for those who’ve already read this verbally athletic Canadian-born poet at length and a comprehensive introduction for those on the European side of the Atlantic who have had, so far, only the occasional chance to get a taste of his work at the jostling, competitive buffet known as English language poetry. As such, it is long overdue. Swift, after all, has been a tireless champion of a distinctively cosmopolitan, open-minded, post-modernist strand of contemporary writing for quite some time and his work as an editor and ferociously scrupulous blogger in Budapest, Paris and, latterly, London has all too frequently occluded his reputation as a poet with a singular ability to be simultaneously learned, playful and profound. Not for nothing does Salmon Poetry’s Kevin Higgins mention Ezra Pound in his introduction to this book: in his ‘booming’ of others, Swift is tireless; in his own work, he has a similarly joyous, border-ignoring interest in what makes a good poem tick. Fortunately (and unlike Pound), he also shows himself to be smart enough not to be taken in by false messiahs.
‘Seaway’, in short, is the work of someone with a sure grasp of the modernist ‘tradition’ and a healthily inquisitive attitude to what poetry can and can’t do, fired, perhaps, by Auden’s finest posture: “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
Here, then, are poems like ‘Tomsk’, which skitters between post-Soviet tourist information bureau hype and ancient Greece, ringing the changes on Yeats’ Byzantium and deploying language with the same tough relish:
“…the Siberian Athens, known for its lacy wooden
buildings, furs, gold, and universities.”
– Local Tourist Guide
What are lacy buildings? Was there ever
a cold Socrates, a Parthenon gilded in ice?
What long poetry, what Pythagorean tears
scattered in these bitter white winds?
What polar bears bit at what rinds?
Did Plato and Aristotle, pulled by a team
of snow-caped malamutes, decamp in Tomsk
to envision gold-smeared Greece
reborn in a frozen swamp, newly lit
by Diogenes’ lamp? Did they flame
the chill-gnawed Siberian landscape
with images of icon and geometry?
What exists love says should be:
a dolphin-grey, a book-kissed, city.
Elsewhere, too, there’s ‘The New Fedora’ with its staunchly in-the-moment detail, the formalist neo-romance of ‘Water, Running’ and the breathless ‘The Great Rose Windows’ about the stained-glass wonders of Chartres cathedral. Not to mention the smart one-liners, peppering the whole collection: “Send for the boys who do not care.”
Words matter throughout. That might sound like a very obvious thing to say about a poetry collection but then, when it comes down to it, few contemporary English language collections exhibit the combination of verbal precision and improvisation which Swift deploys in poems like the tour-de-force ‘One Hundred Lines’. We all want some clever, all-embracing metaphor to explain the lives we live now. As ‘Modest Proposal’ from 2007’s ‘Winter Tennis’ would have it of contemporary poetry: “Every word counts, he said. / And then he counted them.”
What counts in Swift’s case, then, is his fashioning of a particular, disjointed sense of ‘the world’ and its difficult relationship with wherever we might call home — home, at various times, being where we were born, where we happen to be living or where we might possibly die. How we exist in several different places at once and survive abstract relationships which nuance our day-to-day relationships with those different places is very much a part of Swift’s subject matter here, the ‘Seaway’ of the title coming to seem like a metaphor for the great architectural changes most of us have no say in determining. Curiously, for all their vertiginous imaginative leaps, reading these immaculately crafted poems and knowing that Swift is out there somewhere fashioning stray experiences into verse makes more of the world seem like home.