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Guest Review: Brinton On Swift

If it weren't for the fact it is almost my birthday - or that mirrors and doubles and water-gazing figure prominently in my new collection (which speaks to, almost as an ironic retort, my New and Selected from the previous year) - I might not have succumbed to this narcissistic temptation - really an honour. Ian Brinton, Prynne expert, scholar and critic - has sent in a delightful gift - an unasked-for piece of writing on my new book. I post it to share the gift with you.

Ian Brinton on
Mainstream Love Hotel

The heraldic statement concerning objects which William Carlos Williams included in Book I of Paterson, published in 1946, came from an early piece of his written in 1927:

Before the grass is out the people are out
and bare twigs still whip the wind—
when there is nothing, in the pause between
snow and grass in the parks and at the street ends
—Say it, no ideas but in things—

In these lines there is, of course, more than just ‘things’. There is a sense of time as winter ends without spring having begun and the newness of hope that takes people outside is juxtaposed with ‘bare twigs’ and ‘whip’: time for the first public movements, caught in the pause between one world and another, leading to social mingling in parks and at street ends.

The cinematic quality of Todd Swift’s poetry combines a similar sense of objects caught in their movement: light and time held in a balancing act:

no one else but a girl
on the bicycle

turning out of dark
from the corner

the second time
she cycles the block

a thin spoke of light
is broken alongside—

a rushing—
as of great distances

This poem is titled ‘At twilight’, a name which itself catches the shift from one moment to another, both morning and evening, and opens with such clarity as the bare scene of the page is host to ‘a girl’ whose position at the line’s end ensures a small enough break in the breath to allow, ‘on the bicycle’, a sense of photographic framing. But this photograph is no still as the present participle opens the third line to bring her from one light to another, round the corner and into our vision. The clicking movement of her wheel spokes sounds for us with ‘second’, ‘cycles’, ‘block’ and ‘broken’ before the emotional resonance of the experience confronts us with both proximity and distance. The echo of Carlos Williams brings, of course, to mind the amount that depends upon ‘a red wheel/barrow’, that 1923 ‘mobile-like arrangement’ (Wallace Stevens) which Hugh Kenner suggested had words that ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’

Swift’s eye for the particular goes beyond the world of description to capture ‘the bright aspect of recollection’ where

Shelved, small events
keep their status
and know their place
in the hierarchy.
(‘Too many and too often’)

The world of the particular is the world of linguistic differentiation, ‘this’ not ‘that’, ‘these’ not ‘those’, a sense of proximity rather than distance, a sense of bringing the catch home and relishing the value of ‘These days’:

These are the days
not other days
these are the days I was
working towards
as other further weeks,
working for days
that now I see have come in,
fish from the street

sold fresh, the man
in his whites, ringing to bring
fish just off the boats

As if to eschew any association with the quick inspired flash of poetry Swift’s ideas are matured and they are worked out over time with a full awareness that the present moment is an accumulation of what has taken place before: the HERE & NOW can only have any importance because of its debt to the THEN:

days that were in the sea
not so long ago
not brought home to me,
I’d thought to have my work
done by now, to have reached

the goals set out long ago,
I won’t get there now
no need to, here, see
what was earned, not owed,

Time and again Todd Swift grounds his language and ideas in the personal and there is a convincing quality to its domestic reference that avoids the prurient by appealing to the universal:

these days of you and me—
more than pensions, savings,
toil, long hours, ever bring—
days beginning with us in bed

and ending with us asleep—
between is the time worked
on, to make, and keep
no other days
no other ways
these are them, here,
in the basket, glinting like coins,
fish fresh and shining from the sea.

The musical movement forward in these lines, replete with repetition announcing and restating the value of the moment, allows us to settle for the satisfaction of glinting coins being superseded by the transient freshness of that last line. Charles Olson wrote his own poem titled ‘These Days’ (10th January 1950) and sent it to Carlos Williams a couple of days later:

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

Time and again throughout mainstream love hotel Todd Swift leaves the roots on and we can watch and value the accumulation of a life where things take on new values.

by Ian Brinton
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