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Four Incarnations: New And Selected Poems, 1957-1991
by Robert Sward
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From Publishers Weekly
Introducing these poems, Sward writes that in 1966 he was "hit by a speeding MG" and lost his memory for 24 hours. Curiously though, Sward's poems, even prior to his accident, manifest a kind of amnesiac's perspective on the world. Many poems in Kissing the Dancer discover an alarming novelty in experience using a child's syntax. In "The Kite," a woman who has just hung herself is described as, simply, "skypaper, way up / too high to pull down." In "At Jim McConkey's Farm," Sward's unusual takes on reality evoke a Zen-like calm. "Overwhelmed by the complexities of skunk cabbage," the poem's speaker suddenly realizes that "at this moment / for this day even, we have belonged here." At times Sward's technique gives his poems a disorienting and diffuse quality: "children screaming and feeling slighted / The next minute we're walking along canals on the planet Mars." In two inventive new poems, however, Sward's style is at its best. "Basketball's the American Game Because It's Hysterical" uses the sport to discuss poetic prosody, and "On My Way to the Korean War . . ." depicts the levitation of "2,000 battle-ready troops."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The New York Times Book Review
Sward can handle not only a Lardner-Hemingway back room kind of American speech, but the attitudes that betray it. He can also describe odd-ball birds not found in Audubon with the mosaic deftness of Marianne Moore.
Here is Robert Sward, now in his fifties, still fresh, ingenuous, and funnier than ever. His life--and what a life--is an open book. You can read all about it here. What's more, you will want to call your friends and read poems to them over the phone. I know. I've done it.
Like other good works of art, these poems have the air of having been made for people rather than for other artists.
Humorous...satiric... The best poems are exuberant, often surreal, jammed with ideas and images; they exude energy.
Excerpted from Four Incarnations, New And Selected Poems, 1957-1991, by Robert Sward. Copyright (c) 1991, 1996 by Robert Sward. Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press and the author. All rights reserved.
The following pages are taken from the Foreword to Four Incarnations, New And Selected Poems.
Born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago,
bar-mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, University
Professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College),
newspaper editor, food reviewer, survivor of four
marriages, father of five children, my writing
career has been described by critic Virginia Lee as
a long and winding road.
1. Switchblade Poetry: Chicago Style
I began writing poetry in Chicago at age 15, when I
was named corresponding secretary for a gang of
young punks and hoodlums called the Semcoes. A
Social Athletic Club, we met at various locations
two Thursdays a month. My job was to write
postcards to inform my brother thugs--who carried
switchblade knives and stole cars for fun and
profit--as to when, where and why we were meeting.
Rhyming couplets seemed the appropriate form to
notify characters like light-fingered Foxman,
cross-eyed Harris, and Irving "Koko," of upcoming
meetings. An example of my switchblade juvenilia:
The Semcoes meet next Thursday night at Speedway
Koko's. Five bucks dues, Foxman, or fight.
Koko was a young boxer whose father owned Chicago's
Speedway Wrecking Company and whose basement was
filled with punching bags and pinball machines.
Koko and the others joked about my affliction--the
writing of poetry--but were so astonished that they
criticized me mainly for my inability to spell.
2. Sailor Librarian: San Diego
At 17, I graduated from high school, gave up my job
as soda jerk and joined the Navy. The Korean War
was underway; my mother had died, and Chicago seemed
an oppressive place to be.
My thanks to the U.S. Navy. They taught me how to
type (60 words a minute), organize an office, and
serve as a librarian. Then they put me on a
300-foot long, flat-bottomed Landing Ship Tank
(LST), and off I went to Korea as overseer of 1200
paperbacks, a sturdy upright typewriter, and a
couple of filing cabinets.
The best thing about duty on an LST is the ship's
speed: 8-10 knots. It takes approximately one month
for an LST to sail from San Diego to Pusan, Korea.
In that month I read Melville's "Moby Dick,"
Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Thoreau's "Walden," the
King James Version of the Bible, Shakespeare's
"Hamlet," "King Lear," and a biography of Abraham
While at sea, I began writing poetry as if poems
were secret letters from some distant land.
I sent a poem to a girl named Lorelei with whom I
was in love. Lorelei had a job at the Dairy Queen.
Shortly before enlisting in the Navy, I spent $15 of
my soda jerk money taking her up in a single engine,
sight-seeing airplane so we could kiss and--at the
same time--get a good look at Chicago from the air.
Beautiful Loreli never responded to my poem. Years
later, at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop,
I learned that much of what I had been writing (love
poems inspired by a combination of lust and
loneliness) belonged, loosely speaking, to a
tradition--the venerable tradition of unrequited
3. Mr. Amnesia: Cambridge
In 1962, after ten years of writing poetry, my book,
"Uncle Dog & Other Poems," was published by Putnam
in England. That was followed by two books from
Cornell University Press, "Kissing the Dancer" and
"Thousand-Year-Old Fiancee." Then in 1966, I was
invited to do 14 poetry readings (in a two-week
stretch) at places like Dartmouth, Amherst, and the
University of Connecticut.
The day before I was scheduled to embark on the
reading series, I was hit by a speeding MG in
I lost my memory for a period of about 24 hours.
Just as I saw the world fresh while cruising to a
war zone, so I now caught a glimpse of what a city
like Cambridge can look like when one's inner slate,
so to speak, is wiped clean.
Sward has heard the best pop/op minds of his generation, marrying those sounds with his sensitive responses to such earlier literary giants as Melville, Whitman, and E.E. Cummings... Four Incarnations is one of the very best poetry books of the year.
4. Santa Claus: Santa Cruz
In December, 1985, recently returned to the U.S.
after some years in Canada, I found temporary
employment as a Rent-a-Santa Claus. Imagine walking
into the Louden-Nelson Community Center and suddenly,
at the sight of 400 children, feeling transformed from
one's skinny, sad-eyed self, into an elf--having to
chant the prescribed syllables, "Ho, Ho, Ho."
What is poetry? For me, it's the restrained music
of a switchblade knife. It's an amphibious warship
magically transformed into a basketball court, and
then transformed again into a movie theater showing
a film about the life of Joan of Arc. It is the
vision of an amnesiac, bleeding from a head injury,
witnessing the play of sunlight on a red brick wall.
Poetry comes to a bearded Jewish wanderer, pulling
on a pair of high rubber boots with white fur, and a
set of musical sleigh bells, over blue, fleece-lined
sweat pants. It comes to the father of five
children bearing gifts for 400 and, choked up,
unable to speak, alternately laughing and sobbing
the three traditional syllables--Ho, Ho, Ho--hearing
at the same time, in his heart, the more plaintive,
tragic--Oi vay, Oi vay, Oi vay.
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