CafT Alibi

by Todd Swift
74 pages,
ISBN: 0919688535

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Urbane Cosmopolitan Awaiting Apocalypse
by Kevin Higgins

At first glance this looks like a collection by yet another emerging North American poet labouring under the influence of some variant of New Formalism. There is even a poem titled "Seven Eights Are Fifty-Six" in which each of the seven stanzas is, you guessed it, exactly eight lines long. However, the collection's formality is deceptive. A closer reading reveals that Todd Swift's poetry is actually a place where several disparate trends in contemporary English language poetry intersect. A well known performance poet¨he was one of the founders of the poetry cabaret scene in Montreal¨Swift combines an essentially conservative approach to poetic form (reminiscent of the British poets of The Movement) with the outlook of an urbane, cosmopolitan expecting some sort of apocalypse. It is as if Philip Larkin, Dylan Thomas and Paul Muldoon had been rolled bizarrely into one. I first came across Swift's work on his performance poetry CD The Envelope, Please, and found it surprisingly impressive. (My experience here in Ireland, where the term "performance poet" as often as not turns out to mean "bad stand-up comic," had left me somewhat prejudiced). Three of the poems here were also featured on that CD. One of them "After The End Of The World" sees him at his most apocalyptic: "For a week we had sex in a building / we could never have afforded / the rent for, before the Terrible Event." The end of the world has been the subject of some very questionable poetry, but there is a maturity to Swift's writing which makes his apocalypse strangely credible. And it requires a highly developed sense of the absurd to observe that the end of the world would at least have the desirable side-effect of finally putting a stop to runaway property prices.
"The More Deserved" is a homage to Larkin's 'The Less Deceived': "We marry our unachievements, make // resentment a second home: a garden / we keep out back, for little pleasures. / Her ring slipped off a finger, the line /slack now at the bottom of the ravine, // promotions passing overhead like jets." What is most impressive is the way Swift takes Larkin's style and tone and uses them to speak about resentments and ambitions which are, one gets the feeling, absolutely his own. Several poems bear testament to the profound influence Larkin has had on his work; the most effective of these being 'Penthouse Revisited' a poem inspired by the time Swift spent working as a copy-editor for GMI, the publisher of Penthouse magazine: "I am nostalgic, // brought back, like at Tintern Abbey, to earlier / awkward vertigos, on puberty's bridge of sighs ű / and find myself, oddly renewed here at this web / site, after all my actual partners' genuine touch, // human insight ű left to pause, praise and collect / these thumbnail scans of mere images of Eros ű / adore their flat, impervious, imperishable teases / that were promises of the little that is so much?" The relatively optimistic ending here showing that Swift clearly doesn't go all the way with Larkin's infamously jaundiced view of human existence.
Indeed, in the beautiful love poem "Water, Running" and in "The Seven Wonders of the World", Swift is decidedly upbeat: "To say there are seven wonders is to undercount / shamelessly." The best thing about Swift's poetry is the way that it, again and again, refuses to be what you've decided it is. He has quite clearly lived in the world, and so has no shortage of topics about which to write, and is, in fact, prepared to have a go at almost any subject matter. Thus he gives us a poem titled "Lloyd's of London" next to a poem about following a school-girl home. Like most collections CafT Alibi has its weaker moments: a few of the shorter poems such as "War Effort" and "My Name Is Panama" do read like fillers. However, unlike most it also contains several poems¨ "Sheer Speculation", "Penthouse Revisted" and "The Seven Wonders of The World" to cherrypick just three¨to which this reviewer will certainly return. ˛

Kevin Higgins's first collection The Boy With No Face is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. A founding co-editor of the Irish literary magazine The Burning Bush, he has reviewed poetry for publications such as Metre and Poetry Quarterly Review (UK).

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