Kelsay Books. 2019. 65 pp.
Judy Swann's Fool delivers elements of her life in poems that form a romp through her history, through such places as Vladivostok and Tblisi, through Morocco and Cote d'Azur, through loves, through myth, through mothering with its "humbling" and "exalting."
But Swann is nobody's fool even as she holds private converse with her muse and tells us what it cost her.
She said, "Tell me that you love me."
I said she was always on my mind, I called
as often as I could. She said, "Tell me
that you love me." I said, "I spent twenty years,
two husbands, and all my thrift on those roses."
In "Yeah, Baby," the second section, the poet spins "baby" verses: those yearning poems about "get me with child," the poems of miscarriage, those of waiting, then the baby's arrival. Though death enters, the poet keeps the gloss of the themes healthy and light-hearted, achieving the comic against the sober.
The child is perfectly formed and looks like a miniature Otto von
Bismarck... Still curled in his apostrophe, he protects his mother's
One of the mother's breasts has escaped the hospital gown and
turgidly obtrudes. A web-thin thread of milk runs from it to a
puddle on the floor.
"Acid" describes an adolescent romp. She: outdoors and shirtless, and he: college boy with a "Dutch boy nose." The acid was very good, but the poem twists and in the end the joke's on us.
These rhyme-less poems are beautiful in their literary references, in evocations of popular songs, in language allusions that bespeak the poet's broad knowledge, that let the sounds come to us through the occasional Latin, French, Persian, and Portuguese, and even in "baby-talk." There's some jazz-talk, too, like "the time the Ferris wheel made the little kids cry / at the Okoboji of slow dancing" (from "The Cancer Fairy").
Though a multi-lingual, the poet nevertheless lets us eat simply from a Gala or a Honeycrisp, not needing to display the full extent of her language sources. I first met her through We Are All Well, her finely-edited collection of the letters of Nora Hall, a 19th C. farming woman and wife of a lumberer. In contrast to that volume, Fool surprises us with its sophistication, imagination and wit, but chiefly with the author's animated language, often allowing its elements to take far-leaps within a single line.
As we might expect, Swann ends the 65-page collection on a joyful note. The couple is getting married:
He asks what should we do when we get to Zion
with our shields, our gold dust, and our books
What should we do, he asks, after we eat the angels' bread
and I am filled with a smoldering need to check my phone and
In spite of the two poems in this volume that remain undecipherable to me, I could love the language of this poet, and I do.
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