Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Review of EVERYTHING HAPPENS SUDDENLY by Roberta Swan, Cervena Barva Press, PO Box 440357, West Somerville, MA 02144, 2010, $15.

By Barbara Bialick

For poets or other poetry lovers, part of the fun of reading a good book is to look for its hidden meanings. I’ll let the readers draw their own conclusions, but given that this book was praised by the great poet Mary Oliver and is written by the co-founder of the American Jazz Orchestra, I first looked for jazz riffs and rhythms and themes about nature. Where Mary Oliver’s nature is very mystical, I would say Roberta Swan is not a spiritual writer but one with a keen eye for observation and a love for even the smallest, cutest wildlife, such as a family of chipmunks outside her window.

Not being a jazz expert, I can’t really break down the rhythm that way, though I did note recurring themes about her similarities and differences with her husband, and also, the sense of suddenness that can occur in the most regular times of personal events, such as the overnight change in her mother’s status as an aging go-getter to a proud, but physically collapsed woman in a wheel chair.

On the back of the book, Mary Oliver is quoted: “Roberta Swan’s poems have a welcome vivacity; they are deft and full of charm and humor. But not entirely…It is the mixture of light and dark—the embrace of all of it—that is her special gift.”

The first section of the book, where she interacts with her elderly mother, is my favorite. “I want her to live forever,” Swan writes. At age 80, she “doesn’t want to call it quits,” but at 90, she “phones long distance/to report her TV went kaput/and wonders if death is like that.” In the poem “Hawkeye” she says “I should have been prepared, but old age happened overnight.” Still, Swan relates a story about her mother’s good sense of fun, when she could get around, of accidentally finding her daughter in her Victoria’s Secret
underwear looking for a hidden box of chocolates in the middle of the night. She asks for some chocolates and comments, “Nice lace. Get me one…”

In a different batch of poems that relate some of her husband and wife interaction, Swan writes in “Another One of Those Days” that a tombstone in a cemetery “says a husband and wife/died on the same day./a good thing I’ll tell him.” In “One Kills, the Other Doesn’t,” she excuses killing flies by saying “I’m doing something holy,/hastening resurrection/pushing them up the insect ladder…” But some of her word usage is lacking in originality, such as an overused phrase like “Getting Lucky.” or “In a Nutshell.” On the other hand, in “For the Birds,” she produces such a good lines as “Goldfinches spill around House For Sale.” and “Mr. Takala stands in his garden, looking at nothing, mourning his wife,/wearing a windbreaker/she would have talked him out of.”

Roberta Swan was program director of Great Hall at Cooper Union, and also taught there. She has taught at Indiana University, The New School, Baruch College and at the Bennington Writing Workshop.

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