I’ve written before about the blow suffered by Seattle’s literary community when poet Joan Swift died in March. At 90 years old, Swift represented a clear link to Seattle’s literary past (she was one of Seattle poetry godfather Theodore Roethke’s last students), and given her propensity to guide and encourage younger poets, her influence will be felt for many decades to come.
I talked with Swift’s friends about her life and legacy, and everyone had a favorite Swift poem, a work that would burrow deep into their chests and change them forever. Some admired the frank poems she wrote about her daughter’s suicide. Others were grateful to find their experiences reflected in the biographical pieces Swift wrote about sexual assault. A few thought her poems about the unfair rawness of nature built on America’s naturalist tradition in a bold new way. But in all those words of praise, one thing stood out in its absence: a book that fully represented the depth and scope of her work.
Swift published plenty of books, of course. And those books all have high notes worthy of a reader’s attention. But I found when reading The Tiger Iris, say, or her chapbook Snow on a Crocus, that Swift’s essential Swiftness did not conform easily into something book-shaped. Individually, the poems were all strong, but they didn’t blend together into the kind of journey you’ll take with a truly great book of poetry.
Luckily for us, Swift had one final gift left to give. In the months before her death, Swift was working with Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson on a final collection of poetry. Johnson says that Swift was insistent that they get the book “extremely right.” She had strong opinions about every aspect of the production, up to and including the font. “She wanted to carry it through to the best of her ability,” Johnson told me. By the time she passed away, all the major decisions had been made and the book was ready to go.
And now it’s in the world. Published just two months after her death, The Body That Follows Us is Swift’s best, most thematically consistent book by far. The recurring images in Body — bones, stargazing, pregnancy, aging — tell a story not just of Swift’s final years but of her entire life. She is in this book, and this book is her, cradle to grave.
Though Swift was never a teacher of poetry, some of the poems in Body represent a lecture course for aspiring writers. “For Theodore Roethke” condenses everything she learned from the old master in five taut stanzas. After a few lines about the importance of rewriting comes this flash of memoir:
…First drafts are small forays into the hills
from which I bring back a pail half full of unripe
blueberries that may, on closer look, be
some other kind of fruit entirely. I remember
he leaned back in the chair and waved his hand
and said my poem describing salmon was really about sex.
Near the end of her life, Swift’s friends told me, she was prone to falling and injuring herself. The wariness she feels about her body appears in many of the poems. “The Cousins Talk About Osteoporosis” begins, “If we break a hip we’ll die, our doctors warn.” But rather than descending into a prison of her own flesh and bone like an Emily Dickinson of human frailty, Swift closes the poem out with a reminder that our bones will survive us by decades, maybe centuries, that people dig up “ribs and femurs, skulls in a meadow’s loam” because our bones are the densest part of ourselves, the piece we leave behind.
Perhaps the most harrowing pages of Body contain a sequence of poems about an unwanted pregnancy:
In the morning the doctor at the clinic
says it’s way too late, he’d have to do a partial
birth abortion, drive through the brain a pick
and he won’t. You see on the sonogram a girl
as she comes swirling up in the light of her bones,
waiting for the world’s love, though she waits alone.
Try to set aside for a moment, if you can, the grave-deep sorrow of that last line and reflect on those bones — this time not an ancient artifact but instead a promise, the glowing beacon of a human yet to arrive, a framework on which the flesh and blood is yet to fully form.
Swift’s talent was immense enough to encompass bones as both an ephemeral whiff of possibility and the eternal tomb-heavy reminder of our existence. The Body That Follows Us is like that, too: it is an artifact, a permanent reminder of a life that once was. But it’s also a promise, a reminder that Swift’s story is far from over, so long as her friends and readers and the many writers who learned from her are still walking the earth.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant