Alec Newman’s splendid Knives Forks and Spoons Press has just released some imaginative and inspiring new volumes and I am delighted that this treads closely upon the heels of Juha Virtanen’s review article on the Press in the current issue of Tears.
Unfinished Study of a French Girl is Todd Swift’s first pamphlet of poetry in years and, having written about Mainstream love hotel (Tall-Lighthouse 2009) some years back, it gives me pleasure to pore over this new little chapbook. I recall referring in my earlier review to Swift’s grounding of language and ideas in the personal and being struck by the feeling that there is a convincing quality to domestic reference that avoids the prurient by appealing to the universal. As the blurb on the final page of this new book tells us ‘Exploring how absence “ghosts” all our desires and hopes, our fears and fun, this collection artfully and playfully takes poems to rarely seen places, aesthetic, elegant and witty as always.’ Given that statement and my earlier reading of Todd Swift’s work it should come as no surprise that I turned to the poem ‘Kora in Hell’ which stands spread over the central pages of this new chapbook.
the red seeds bitterly bursting their small loan
onto the banks of your tongue
in the wan gardens underground
where no noon is.
This is a poem about transience and hope, about being ‘near the sun and on the ground’ which ‘is to be alive’. With an awareness of how time both takes and gives we are presented with that buried world in which ‘love lights darker candles’ and in which ‘a starker irresistance thrives’. I am reminded here of Donne’s ‘A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’:
As the trees sap doth seeke the root below
In winter, in my winter now I goe,
Where none but thee, th’Eternall root of true love I may know.
Just as ‘Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light’ Swift’s underworld seeks to possess ‘The darker longing / is to keep the slim sweet guest who never stays.’ One of the beauties of the myth of Kora lies in its confirmation that all possession is itself short-lived and the ‘slim sweet guest’ will return to land and sun. There is no binding to oneself a joy! In William Carlos Williams’s 1920 publication, Kora in Hell, he referred to a discrimination between true and false values and concluded that the true value ‘is that peculiarity which gives an object character by itself’:
The imagination goes from one thing to another. given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.
These are accomplished and delicate poems which play with ideas of presence and absence and which sometimes have that awareness of ‘only air where art / could have been’ in terms of the title poem of the collection.
Next year Todd Swift’s publishing company, Eyewear, intends to produce a book to help push current serious poetry criticism of contemporary British and Irish poetry into new and informative directions. The book will be aimed at the general intelligent reader and well as undergraduate and M.Litt university students, and of course, poets themselves.
Swift’s own account of this new venture is ‘I am thinking this will be a sort of brief critical encyclopaedia’.
Ian Brinton 26th May 2014