Book Review

Not Quite Eden by Richard Swanson. Madison, WI: Fireweed Press, 2010. $13

Reviewed by Kathleen Serley

With humor and insight Richard Swanson explores life’s complexities in his engaging new poetry collection, Not Quite Eden.  We can learn much from these poems. How to age gracefully, cope with loss, even tolerate a late spring snowstorm, are all topics Swanson considers with wit and wisdom.

The collection begins aptly with “Awakening,” a good-natured account of a retiree getting out of bed in the morning:

            Groggy, up off the bed, balls of the feet on the carpet,
            he feels it, his weight veering forward
            all by itself.

            What are they doing, these knee things?

            He’s there at the crest,
            the mountain’s peak, ready for push-off,
            but he’s already moving.
            Schuss time, whoopee and whoa.
            Flap your arms in glee, he thinks,
            or maybe you’re trying to just stay upright?

            Flex, he’s got, more than he needs,
            and his cartilage wants a trial separation.

            Alert now fully?  Got your wobbly bearings?
            What a rush to start the day. a lark,
            a thin-air fling, a giddy adventure caroming ahead.

            Where could this lead?

I chuckle at the images, relate to the situation and wonder with Swanson where this could lead.

As the collection continues, I am led to consider the difficult topics of aging and loss through Swanson’s intuitive descriptions.  He captures the feeling of loneliness that can accompany retirement and aging in “Warm Body,” which takes place at a town meeting:

            At home he was fearful and cold.  Here he’s meeting
            old friends not seen in months, space
            and time done in by winter’s assault, slow-motion.

            He waves through space:  Hey Heidi, Joe.  He loves these
            meetings, his going through the motions.

The anger and irritability that result from grief are expertly conveyed in “Up There,” a poem about a man traveling with his wife’s ashes:

            Are you traveling alone, said the woman.

            No, with my wife, he replied, but his answer was curt,
            teasing, he wondered why.

            The woman smiled.  Up ahead?  First class?  How sweet.

            No, he said simply.  Up there.
            (Gesturing vaguely, with a schoolboy’s relish).
            in the overhead bin, her ashes.   Cancer, two months ago.

            Ooohh, ooohhh!  (From the bride).
            God, how awful, we’re sorry, so sorry!  (From the husband).

            yes, we were happy...  mostly.
            In his creamy assurance meanness still roamed.
            Could Death, who’d ransacked his house and belongings, now be resident               
            chief of mischief in his head,
            letting loose siblings of his mourner’s anger?

The strength of these poems is in Swanson’s point of view.  He uses simple incidents, attending a town meeting, a casual conversation among strangers to take a light hearted look at the difficult subjects of loneliness and death.  In both these poems the economy of language creating an image such as “siblings of his mourner’s anger” reminds us of poetry’s charm.

A second strength of the poems in this collection is Swanson’s skillful word choice.  One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Comeuppance,” an account of a late spring snow storm: 

            We here suave in certitude,
            patrician in self-assurance,
            we of sterling intuition
            who brook no contrary opinion to
            and bet our mansion of prescient insight on
            this year’s winter being done for,

            we who smugly averred that nighttime cold
            was long ago gone from even the dog house,
            and the three new crocuses out by the drainpipe
            were rightful members of the court of her Majesty Spring,

            we have been smacked wide awake this morning
            with a whap on our windows
            fill up the gullies
            bury your car
            mock your socks off
            lock you inside with your lover
            ten inches deep and piling in          
            downright upstart snowstorm.

The sheer joy of a phrase like, “downright, upstart snowstorm” make me laugh at the idea of being confined after a long winter by yet another snowstorm.  And unique images like “mock your socks off” and “three new crocuses out by the drainpipe/were rightful members of the court of her Majesty Spring” delight and show Swanson’s mastery of the poet’s craft.  He has such fun with language in this poem. Consider the way he builds to that “whap on our windows” with rhythmic phrases like "suave in certitude," "patrician in self-assurance" and “prescient insight.” “Comeuppance” is just fun to read.

Not Quite Eden is poignant and positive.  It delights and encourages.  I highly recommend this warm and wise look at some of life’s challenges.  Who knows where it might lead?  

A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Kathleen Serley enjoys all of our seasons: spring gardening, summer beach combing, fall hiking and winter snow shoeing. She teaches English.