What I would really like to say about The Collected Poems of Robert Sward would not be a book review. I would like to say, Listen to this! and quote a whole poem, then another and another, just letting the...
Robert gives an overview of the book:
[Introduction by Jack Foley]
UNCLE DOG BECOMES A BODHISATTVA:
AN INTRODUCTION TO ROBERT SWARD
You don’t look like a Canadian.
—Saul Bellow to Robert Sward
* * *
All I am really hungry for is everything.
Reminiscences from Cornell University, forty years ago: I remember the eyes most of all: large, hazel-brown, luminous, kindly. And the manner: hesitant but pleasant. And the sense one had of a gentle, oddly elegant madness. He was tall: one thought he must look like Robert Lowell. And there was insight: he would stammer, but there were always ideas, intelligence, something worth listening to. And the oddity of the poems:
I did not want to be old Mr.
Garbage man, but uncle dog
who rode sitting beside him.
Uncle dog had always looked
to me to be truck-strong
wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford
Of a dog. I did not want
to be Mr. Garbage man because
all he had was cans to do.
(“Uncle Dog: The Poet At 9”)
Robert Sward’s career began in the late 1950s. He is a well-known poet, but he is not nearly as well known, as he should be. Sward’s poems are often comic, but they are never only comic—or for that matter only seriocomic. X.J. Kennedy is a seriocomic poet of considerable capacity, but he is nothing like Sward who actually has more in common with W.B. Yeats, for whom the Trembling of the Veil of the Temple was a constant source of inspiration. Sward’s poems are the result of a plunge into a never fully ironized, often hilarious sense of mysticism: they are the product of a restless, spiritually adventuresome sensibility masking itself as a stand-up comedian. Who but a mystic would write a passage like this—funny, but alive with the via negativa:
The dodo is two feet high, and laughs.
A parrot, swan-sized, pig- scale-legged
bird. Neither parrot, nor pig—nor swan.
Its beak is the beak of a parrot,
a bare-cheeked, wholly beaked and speechless
parrot. A bird incapable of
anything—but laughter. And silence:
a silence that is laughter—and fact.
And a denial of fact (and bird).
It is a sort of turkey, only
not a turkey, not anything. —Not
able to sing, not able to dance
not able to fly.
Sward describes himself as “Born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago, bar mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, university professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College), newspaper editor, food reviewer, father of five children, husband to four [now five] wives*….”
Sward’s mother died in 1948 at the age of 42; her last words were a request “to keep [Robert’s] feet on the ground.” The poet describes his podiatrist father as handsome—”a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn”—as well as “ambitious and hard-working,” a “workaholic.” By the time Sward wrote the poems collected in Rosicrucian in the Basement, the father has blossomed into a full-fledged eccentric, a visionary adrift in a world which doesn’t comprehend him:
“There are two worlds,” he says lighting incense, “the seen
and the unseen…
This is my treasure,” he says.
Like uncle dog, Sward’s father is a comic version of the poet—but the terms have changed a little. Sward’s father quotes Rilke (albeit unknowingly):
“We of the here-and-now, pay our respects
to the invisible.
Your soul is a soul,” he says, turning to me,
“but body is a soul, too. As the poet says,
‘we are the bees of the golden hive of the invisible.’”
“What poet, Dad?”
“The poet! Goddammit, the poet,” he yells.
(“Rosicrucian in the Basement”)
* Contemporary Authors, A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, Volume 206, Gale/Thomson, 2003
Guggenheim Fellow, chosen by Lucille Clifton for a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award, author of more than 20 books, including Four Incarnations (Coffee House Press), Heavenly Sex, God is in the Cracks and The Collected Poems (now in...
UNIVERSIDAD DE CHILE
FACULTAD DE CIENCIAS SOCIALES PARES CUM PARIBUS No. 4
Robert Sward: Una mística de los objetos
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