Fiona Sinclair is moved and impressed by Todd Swift’s bold new collection…



When All My Disappointments Came At Once
Todd Swift
Tightrope Books
ISBN-10: 1926639456
ISBN-13: 978-1926639451
pp 102   Price: $16.95

This is not a collection to be dipped into. Instead it should be read in sequence as the poems detail a gradual coming to terms with middle age, the death of a parent and the realisation that the narrator is unable to father children.

T. S Eliot is clearly an influence on Swift both stylistically and intellectually. The poem ‘Seven Good Fridays’  begins with an epigraph from  ‘Little Gidding ‘ and its first line April takes vinegar once a year  clearly nods to the opening of ‘The Waste Land’.  Indeed ‘The Waste Land’ becomes an excellent metaphor for the narrator’s mental state, in which all the old certainties of youth have gone; and of course there is the oblique reference to the ‘Fisher king ‘ blighted by sterility. In an Eliotic manner the poems are disjointed and benefit from being read several times. There is a sense that we must struggle to find meaning, much as the narrator does. The poet has a sharp intellect and this is coupled with superb technical skill.  I was particularly impressed by the way Swift’s language in places evokes Eliot – for example in the poem ‘I think of Delmore Schwartz, Beside My Sleeping Love’ the line Twilight like a courtier bows at the long glass pane creates a distinct and memorable image reminiscent of I too have seen the eternal foot man hold out my coat and snicker.

Mid way through the collection, the narrator‘s mental state begins to calm and we see more clearly the events that have caused the crisis.  I particularly liked the poem ‘St Peter and St Paul’ which reveals that the death of his father has made him  question his faith.  Set during a Mass in which the narrator is distracted by a coughing man, its skill lies in copying perfectly the way in which our minds wander during a dull service; yet given the setting it reveals that we are apt to muse on the nature of faith. What follows is a seemingly simple, yet actually profound, meditation on the nature of prayer and human kindness. I found his comments on unanswered prayers delivered in precise words particularly effective:

Most of the things asked for
Don’t arrive
Bad post office, faith

Similarly on the subject of human kindness I was struck by the line In childhood we catch kindness like the measles.  Swift has a talent for delivering truths in short memorable lines such as these.

Essentially the poems are a middle-aged man‘s deliberations. Some focus on the brutal realties of aging. Hitting forty seems to have been a further contributing factor in the narrator’s breakdown. Much like Yeats, he yearns for a lost youth. This is best seen in the poem ‘Shop-Worn’, the very title suggesting someone past his sell-by date. As a woman I found this insight into a man’s view of aging to be revelatory and reassuring.  Such frankness surely took courage and Swift is a brave poet, for the next part of the collection deals with a narrator’s inability to father children.

The first poem dealing with infertility is ‘Azoospermia’. This is a magnificent poem. Set with dreadful irony in a park where children play, the narrator bluntly tells us Now I was sterile The poem seems to chart the hours just after the narrator has learned of his body’s amazing failure.  What transpires is an authentic account of a man trying without self-pity to come to terms with the news. The reader follows the twists and turns of his mind as it seeks to find some comfort in the various arguments it follows – from wonder at the trick nature has played to envisaging an alternative, child-free, life where he would learn Chinese, particle physics –. The elongated dash after each line suggests the emptiness of such an existence. The poem reaches its peak towards the end with the heart-breaking lines that reveal the narrator blames himself for the vagaries of nature:

I gave my wife the gift of nothing –
I planted autumn in our garden –

Although the wife’s response to the couple’s childlessness’ is never revealed, we get a glimpse of her reactions in one of the most poignant poems ‘The Snow Child’. Here during an abundant snow fall we built our child with conscious caution.  The image is powerful yet tender and, as so often in the poems on this subject, the narrator’s focus drifts onto a Nature that is generous but at the same time can withhold her gifts.

What affected me about this sequence of poems were the revelations of a man’s attitude to his sterility. As well as having an impact on his masculinity, there are issues around the failure to provide children for his wife and, interestingly, a fixation on history in which he seems to feel his inability to contribute not only to his family  but also to wider society.

Inevitably what transpires is a frank depiction of depression.   The poems are not specifically about time spent in mental health units or the nuts and bolts of the illness; rather the poet, mindful of his audience, makes passing references to an anti-depressant self and tells us  I am calm, if sad, to stroll hereabouts now.  The tone is gently melancholic, his state of mind reflected in an autumn / winter setting where, from the isolated territory of the depressive, he observes the rest of the world. Thus the poems are still outward looking rather than self-indulgent.

What saves the narrator is the love for his wife. This may seem clichéd yet it has a straightforward truthfulness about it.  For even in the depths of his depression, there are several poems that tell of a genuine love story revealed in simple unadorned phrases such as:

To walk with my dear wife
In a place subtle as a wood,

My heart leapt like a fool
thinking to see you come to my door

The second constant during this period is poetry. Many of the poems are dated and thereby remind the reader that writing was an on-going means of charting and making sense of the illness. However in the poem ‘Love or Poetry’ the narrator clearly states that I know now that love not poetry will save me.

This collection is, as they say, “a keeper”.  It repays multiple readings since the meanings in many poems are so layered.  It deals with big questions without pretension. Above all, it charts life’s potential to heap one disaster after another on a person – but then reveals how the mind may collapse under the weight yet strive to make its way back to some degree of peace.

Fiona Sinclair is editor of the on-line poetry magazine Message in a Bottle.   Her poetry has appeared in many magazines and her second pamphlet A game of hide and seek was published by Indigo Dreams in 2012.