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swiftby Ilya Kaminsky


“The highest criticism is the record of one’s own soul,” writes Oscar Wilde, and here in this book Todd Swift finds a way to give us a record which is both unpredictable and deeply comforting. How? Swift has found a tone that is smart and honest without being patronizing, he gives us an imaginative clarity that is both evocative and sustaining, in which we sense “the vibrancy of loss is violins.”


This is a book of portraits and voyages. You will find moving elegiac invocations of figures ranging from Delmore Schwartz to Snow Child.  Swift will take you on many trips to real world places such as St. John’s Wood hospital, St. Ives, Hammersmith Grove, as well as to various imaginary realms that are fascinating–“The land I’d wish to describe” Swift tells us, “contains beasts more delightful than art itself…how fortunate we are to live elsewhere.” And on another voyage we venture into “the past-clever home / for poets, when, inkhorn / Dry, their plain pure language / Has run out.” Then we find ourselves in a “New Country” watching  “ministries / swelling to a nation in some streets” and realizing that “light is always violent expansion.”


Swift’s tone possesses a certain knowledge, a certain vision. Of what sort? Of seeing a body that is “like a dancer, a mind like a jackal.” His acute awareness of his own mortality brings wisdom, yes. It also brings clarity to how, in our time, to use F.T. Prince’s phrase, “to love is terrible we prefer/the freedom of our crimes.” This too, is a record of one’s soul.


It is rare to find, in a chorus of contemporaries, a voice that speaks unsentimentally, but passionately–and of what matters. Todd Swift does this. I particularly loved here such pieces as “Michael Kohlahaas,” “Azoospermia,” “St. Peter and St. Paul,” “Love or Poetry,” “Pont D’Avignon,” “August 1982, Lac Bridgen.” If you have only a few minutes, read the piece called  “God has left us like a girl in a bookstore” and you will want to buy this book.