REVIEW Todd Swift mainstream love hotel (tall-lighthouse, ISBN 978 1 904551 54 6, £8)
One of the many pleasures to be had from Todd Swift’s new poetry collection – his first to be published in Britain – is coming across honed, almost aphoristic lines which crystallise the themes explored throughout this inventive and wide-ranging book. In ‘Lighthouse’, for instance, we’re advised that “It is a good reader that stays in for winter” – one of mainstream love hotel’s many reflections on the business of reading and writing, and, indeed, one of several nods to T.S. Eliot (in this case The Waste Land’s “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”) – while, in ‘Itineraries’, “There is no place too small/for some of us to travel to” is as good a summation as any of Swift’s roving interests and his ability to detect significance in the seemingly insignificant and obscure. Whether during a flaneur’s stroll through the streets of Paris (‘French poem’) or transferring old vinyl records onto “the thin silver thing” in ‘London Records’, he is a tireless recorder of arcane detail.
Geographically speaking, in fact, mainstream love hotel is as restlessly cosmopolitan as the Canadian-born poet’s previous collections – the four published by DC Books in Montreal and 2008’s Seaway from Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. As well as London and France, we might be in Japan, Greece, Vermont, the Arctic, the Caribbean or Canada – the latter, most notably, in the dense, cross-cutting narratives of ‘Canadian fictions’, with its cargo ships, “parched lives” and “many loves looked away from”.
Similarly, Swift continues to range confidently across contemporary culture, referencing Freud’s ‘talking cure’ and the Ting Tings, Christine Keeler, ‘Spider-Man 2’ and Californian architect Pierre Koenig, amongst others, and take a delight in words which, in ‘Ice-shelf loss’, breaks out in playful riot – “kill a beer. Hunt a bear./Wear a pelt, pellet an appellate//court; court an Inuit; cut/a house of ice from a sneer;” – or, in ‘Freaks’, acquires the Heaney-esque heft of “Having stalled, out-skirted, they surge and swarm,/clot-kick the mud, swear in vain, their caravans/legless in the dew-smacked ditch...”.
If, however, this territory and its techniques will be familiar to those who have read Swift’s earlier books, mainstream love hotel embraces a new and curious paradox. On the one hand, it sees him pushing further towards finding forms and language adequate to “gross truths”, “nature’s crazed potential” and “modernity’s delights” – as in the surreal tilt of ‘Warrington Crescent’ or the twisting, Prynne-like ‘Light Sweet Crude’. On the other, it is cut through with melancholic writerly doubt – the “unmade novels” of ‘Canadian fictions’, the “scarred seeds [which] litter paper” in ‘November’ and, perhaps most poignantly, the book’s almost-defeated last line: “or is it just sighing and whim?” The paradox, of course, is that it is precisely this tension between verbal adventure and the possibility of failure and loss which gives the book much of its energy.
As the poems in the latter half of Seaway hinted, then, Swift is now engaged on a new phase of his genuinely experimental enterprise. His capacity for both vertiginous widescreen imagery and almost recklessly intimate observation is intact but in mainstream love hotel he works across an even broader formal range and delves into fresh linguistic seams. Intellectually and imaginatively rich, this is also a collection which, for all its mental and emotional complexities, is characterised by moments of stark lucidity (see ‘At twilight’, quoted in full below) that are as telling as anything this versatile and accomplished poet has written to date.
no one else but a girl
on the bicycle
turning out of dark
from the corner
the second time
she cycles the block
a thin spoke of light
is broken alongside –
a rushing –
as of great distances.
Review by Tom Phillips, 2010