Saturday, 13 February 2010

Todd Swift review

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.

At twilight

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

Brno photographs

Brno, Czech Republic, summer 2007

Brno's 'new constructions' just visible through the mist

Brno's Cathedral of St Peter and Paul

A curious memorial outside the cathedral

The so-called Dragon of Brno at the Town Hall: nobody's sure how it got there.

The Hotel Avion

It's not every day you find that you've inadvertently stayed in an historical monument but my friend Alex (see Vrsovice Daily blog link just over there) has pointed out that the Hotel Avion in Brno in the Czech Republic has just been listed as one. This is where we stayed, with him, en route by rail to Transylvania in 2007. At the time, the hotel staff didn't seem to be particularly used to having guests, several floors housing dining rooms, ballrooms etc were unused and the interior decor (complete with rather ominous-looking leatherclad doors) clearly hadn't been changed since the communist era. Breakfast was served in the pizza parlour next door.

Brno is proud of its Austro-Hungarian, cubist and communist architectural heritage: the avant-garde architect Jiri Kroha (who, amongst other things, designed a 'perfect socialist town' and a new waterfront development for Prague - neither of which were built) is amongst its most famous former residents, while even the ring of dense communist-era towerblocks around the city inspired the tourist office to come up with the slogan 'Brno welcomes you with new constructions'.
The original plans for the Hotel Avion along with several photographs of it in its 1920s heyday are on display in the museum of Brno inside Castle Spilberk - the museum requires considerable stamina as it is, to say the least, extensive.

Poem: The Breakage Suite

The Breakage Suite

Whenever you came home, there
was always something to mend
or tinker with. The disembowelled
washing machine’s rubber guts
coiled out from an unhinged panel,
bleeding milky water.
Rewired, retuned, a radio
cut in on your modest ta-da.
Nothing went back to the shop.
Spare parts that would come in handy
one day cluttered chests of drawers.

Somewhere around this time
there would have been rumours
of strikes, a change of government.
You visited the Ideal Home,
brought back the textured sofa
we sat on through the power cuts.


Further into this same age was said
to be only just beginning,
the soft taps momentarily halt.
My daughter calls me in
to diagnose frozen windows
on the laptop’s screen.
A glitch, a virus, I’ve no idea.
Warranties expired the other week.
Together we wait on an error report.


It’s the closest I’ve come
to turning back: Euston Station
through the window of a cab.
As if fifty minutes up the line
there'd be spark plugs in the sink
and her exasperation.
There’s nothing I could do.
What kind of fix were we in?
The glass and steel remain
inscrutable as circuit board.

Under skies that thin to brightness
by this concrete plaza’s to-and-froing,
we might have been speaking
of watch repairs. Only now,
as time changes gear
into the traffic’s thawing,
we have other things on our mind,
another elsewhere into which we’re going.

Tom Phillips
Feb 2010
Previously published online with Various Artists

Monday, 1 February 2010

Poem: Note


I can only hope
in speaking to you
that you’re the kind of person
who’ll forgive my presumption
in imagining you to be
the kind of person who’ll forgive
my presumption in imagining you at all.

Tom Phillips
Feb 2010