canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Café Alibi
by Todd Swift
DC Books, 2002

Reviewed by Donald McGrath

For a number of years now, Todd Swift has made his life in Europe, first in Budapest and then in Paris and London, where he now resides. His European residency figures prominently in his latest book of poems, Café Alibi.

“Autumn for Beginners,” Swift’s farewell to Budapest, evokes that city well in its “dog-eared history,” its contrary particulars of gold leaf and shit—dogs will continue to play their misanthropic role in history and on the streets—and its blend of bitterness and melancholy. A popular notion has it that Hungarians, the males in particular, are much afflicted by the latter malady—a product, some suggest, of identification with too many historical defeats. Embedded in unrepaired walls, “50-year-old bullets” keep the sour memories alive. But there is a kind of vitality, too, in the new capitalist future represented by the city’s “shaven-headed, moonlighting mobsters.”

Defeat of a personal nature provides the controlling thread of “Sheer Speculation,” which plays out nicely—or pays out, I should say—as if from a spool. The narrator entertains the idea that all those who once spurned or rejected “us” might be found together at, for example, some deserted Eastern European railway station where “the words we used to woo them” are “tacked to dingy notice boards.” The “we” here indicates that the speaker is thinking—in deference to the ex-communist location—collectively, lamenting on behalf of all who have ever been spurned in love, unfortunates who “sip at short straws.” Although the poem’s conceit initially suggests a pinched or frail ego, its execution clears large enough a space for whimsy that one is ultimately grateful for the speaker’s plight. Translation: its loss is our gain.

I was intrigued by the conjunction of fascism and fetishized extreme-weather gear in “Winter Sports,” in which flare-toting members of Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party sweep down an Austrian slope “celebrating past heroic errors.” Faced with what one might call the North Face of fascism, the narrator turns to the more earthy charms of some Katja in bicycle pants—sex insulates against ideology—who in turn recalls “summers misspent / speeding parcels to law firms.” There is the sense that urgency about the law might take on a broader meaning if the boys and girls of winter ever get their way.

In most mortals, impending apocalypse can produce a sudden feverish desire for home. We want not only the hearth but the crib as well. “The Last Days of St. Lambert” takes us back to Swift’s birthplace amid a raging fire that spares only the porches of the houses. It’s a singular irony, indeed, that leaves thresholds intact but no place to go beyond them. Churches that formerly administered visions of the end are swept away by it, as if the soil on which they stood held nothing but

. . . a small collection: one girl,
an arrowhead, a boy, a pierced American
coin, through which his eye could see
a roaring sun, and her red hair.

The volume seems haunted at times by anticipations or descriptions of catastrophic loss, the enfeebling effects of which come through in faint auditory signals appropriate to the occasion. “Hull Losses,” which evokes the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea, gives us:

all hands knocking out Morse
with spoons on bent hulls, the high-tech //
surroundings inexplicably silent

Another poem imagines its narrator stepping out to accomplish some mundane task and falling victim to a terrorist’s bomb. The corresponding auditory moment here is composed of the quieter and more sinister detonations of pure contingency as expressed by:

Hume’s billiard balls 
on the smooth green table,
clicking one against the next…

The narrator in “Descriptions of Love,” which compares the experience of being in a relationship to a “mirror you don’t want to break,” nonetheless hears “the sound parcels of glass make sliding / into a torn plastic bag.”

Spoons, billiard balls, a broken mirror—common objects take the great catastrophes indoors, into the domestic space of kitchen, recroom, bathroom. It is as if they actually enabled the narrator to inhabit those vaporized spaces floating just beyond the orphaned thresholds we found in “St. Lambert.” At one point, in “The More Deserved,” we actually find him waiting behind a door ready to receive some failure as if it were something he ordered and now awaits with eagerness or resignation or both.

The day we least deserve grand failure,
we will receive it at the door, delivered
by gloved hand, tipping for the letter.

There are many fine lines and phrases throughout the volume. “War Effort,” for example, gives us gems like “sucking on fag-ends for a trope,” and “Sassoon flashing Fritz his neurasthenic bone.” Many of the short poems exhibit great concision, although a few, like “Hume’s Billiard Balls,” are slight in isolation and best read (as I have attempted to show in the case of this one) against the backdrop of other poems in the volume.

One of poetry’s oldest strategies is to present us first with significant detail or an accretion thereof, and then use this as the springboard for philosophical or existential questions. This dialogue can be a tricky matter, though, since the questioning must be consonant—or in a finely tuned dissonance—with its occasion. The point of departure for “Critical Theory” is the poet Philip Larkin’s unseemly collapse in a WC, his face pressed against a burning pipe, his powers of expression stripped back to the infantile “hot, hot.” The questions that arise from this are full of high sentence: “Can any ointment reconfigure / the rude defacement of our loss?” And a couple of lines later, still within the same ascending arc: “Is it talent’s willful fate to miss the boat, /to choke like the candle just put out, / to lie beneath human dignity and rot?” I wonder whether these interrogations are not pitched too high. Within the strict framework of the poem, these lines in their expansiveness appear untroubled by the dire economy of Larkin’s last words. Are they meant to implode under their own weight? Is self-parody intended? I don’t get the sense that they are, that it is.

“At Meeting, Parting” also proved similarly problematic. Lines such as “Love has safely blinkered me to any other love” and “As I love another ­ and yet! ­ will always do so” seem to perpetuate age-old conceits in timeworn phrases. Moreover, the poem moves haltingly, pausing to cinch apposite emotions between its frequent em-dashes. I found myself wishing for an ironic stance outside the lines, wanted to see the high-romantic diction bracketed.

This is not to suggest that irony is absent from the volume. Indeed, as I’ve already indicated in relation to “Sheer Speculation,” Swift is capable of a healthy dose of distance. Moreover, he can also use it in combination, as a sly lead-in to effects of sweetness. In one poem, which begins by comparing his marriage to “water running / in a bathtub with no plug,” the narrator is initially seized by the aptness of the image but moves beyond the distancing of aesthetics to seriously address his wife’s concern in a way that takes them to a shared memory of “gardens in Istanbul.” Then, too, there is the fact that, in the mid-90s, Swift worked as a copy editor for the publisher of Penthouse Magazine. “Penthouse Revisited” delightfully cranks up the clichés used to showcase female flesh. We see “cocoa-buttered” torsos laid

over a simply blazing turquoise backdrop
of parrot-green palm and chlorinated blue,
or in the hot horse-dusky barn, on hay bales…

The longer poems in the volume often adopt a casual, conversational style that belies the effort that actually went into their construction. “Intergalactic Travel” forms one long sentence that develops unfalteringly over 30 lines. Yet Swift’s awareness of structure is sometimes accompanied by a compensatory urge to muck things up, to wreak havoc. This is actually the driving force behind “Seven Eights are Fifty-six,” which refers self-consciously to the poem’s structure of seven eight-line stanzas. The narrator initially has us believe that he would like to travel into other worlds like “a bold children’s character” to “defeat the source of evil.” The portal he imagines for himself is a World War II calendar illustration of a woman and her daughter dressed in canary yellow at the butcher’s. As he draws this Andrew Wyeth style of scene, he seems to forget his original hero’s mission and would now like nothing better that to slip into the picture in his “best yellow suit” and “tear the page off the calendar” inside the calendar image and let “all of time’s hell / rattle loose.” He’d have the butcher and the wife embrace, the little girl pick her nose, or skip rope, or leap into a puddle—“mud would be good for all these people.” Or maybe he could step up beside the mom and daughter and, standing in for the missing Dad,

tip my Panama hat, and order some baloney
so that I could sit outside in the wartime sun,
eat my way into history, or out it its cartoon.

Donald McGrath is a Montreal-based translator and writer. His first book of poems, At First Light, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in 1995.






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