Dream-beauty-psycho by Todd Swift

Reviewed: Dream-beauty-psycho. Publisher: Eyewear Publishing, 2017. Paperback $10.99, 66pp.

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Home // November.10.2017 // Paul Rowe

Dirges, Dreams, and Dotards

“I am born in words / and reborn reading,” Todd Swift writes in his new poetry collection Dream-beauty-psycho, evoking provocative tension between creation and consequence. Here, the nightmare of 2016, a year that haunts every page of this book, invites Swift's ruminations on composition in the face of decomposition.

In Swift's poem “Cohen Dies, Then Trump Wins,” Leonard Cohen's death, “the ash of his ancestors drifting / Like Frost's snowy evening,” inaugurates a nauseating era of senseless destruction of culture, a mindless masque of “victory” that is “another way of destroying / what one hates to be.” The “ship of state” is tossed by dark waters and readers have reason to suffer; their capacities for feeling feel lost, only to be recovered by Swift's crafty re-assemblage of the cultural material that last year scattered to winds.

Although Swift writes that he “loved Cohen and …hated him / in equal measures of age / and lust,” much like Cohen, Swift is “Senseless to bring lyricism / To a fragile world otherwise / Than darkening optimism.” The sense of hope throughout Dream-beauty-psycho lies in waiting “Undead, like Lugosi, in his tomb / Restless like Lincoln / While the batwings bloom,” macabre alliterative pairings that breathe life into our dormant cultural legacy. Thus, this collection is Swift's love letter to cult subversions of inherited value systems, born of his intense desire to return to starless, Lynchian gloom in order to peel back the decaying onion of our cultural backdrop. Swift's poetry implies that Trump's walls have crumbled before the first blocks have been set in place, replaced with the billowing red curtains of the Black Lodge.

Whatever concrete allusions to American, Canadian, and British history abound throughout the collection, at the heart of this book's ambition is its sincere return to the auteurism of both the French New Wave and the films of Orson Welles to explore the underbelly of the winding cul-de-sac that is contemporary poetry. To better serve his readers, Swift dims the streetlights and brightens the headlights of his sensibility, roughly mapping out for us the diverticulum of his dreams, illuminating the redemptive crossroads where his own “psychobiography” meets the suicidal path of our age, an intersection where Swift's cat Suetonius, “ball of fur and curious harmony” might grate against our discordant rogue's gallery of doomsday dotards. It is the sheer defenselessness of Swift's cat that makes him a noble creature, a being through which “words are outmoded / compared to his output.” Through the poem in which these lines appear, “The Cat,” the presence of unspoken intimacy between beings can “claw into” our shadow selves.

While David Lynch's visionary revival “Twin Peaks: The Return” replaces the evil of Bob with the senseless abuse of Richard Horne, the presumed bastard of Dale Cooper's doppelganger and Audrey Horne, Swift addresses the spirit that in essence is transferred from one devastating corporality and regime to the next in the following lines from his poem “The Bastards”:

A billionaire
Party got underway

In several languages,
But the screams

Of the youngest children
In the far room

That was Dostoyevskian,
We were sure of that,

As we applauded
The new bastard-in-chief,

Then slowly backed out,
As if the squeals of that girl

Were not pain, but fun.

These nightmarish couplets suggest that perhaps all of us are “Prepared for the deluge; / Preparing to call it / Just a bit of rain, / Before the light arcs.” Here, Swift “bursts into flame” and walks with the fire, as if emerging from a mental hospital victorious if only for having destroyed “what one hates to be.” The tumultuous discord of words, the sound and fury that remains deaf to the inner workings of its own dreams, unable to interpret meaning in the face of the blathering evil of our age, crosses through the intersection of converging beliefs “into silence unnerved.” Swift insists this is what poetry can do. Consider the following lines:

We make the sounds
to bring a speaking sea
to the knowing shore
with the bridge

of our mouths.

Just as Leland Palmer, Dark Cooper, and Donald Trump become vessels through which a bedlam of debased instinct boils into the flames that engulf innocence, poetry, though ultimately an art of language, can wash readers ashore on a silent beach where the wisdom acquired from integrating the many divergent aspects of consciousness is buried. Swift reminds us that poetry provides us with the tools with which to dig.

Although Cooper ultimately returns, he cannot reunite Laura Palmer with her mother; although Trump is victorious, his tattered vessel is adrift, awaiting the inevitable oblivion of Ozymandias before him. Despite the agonies of 2016, Swift's readers float through “silent air” to the welcome shores of surreal sensibility, shores that beckon them from Arnold's “turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery” to the darkest corners of their imaginations, to start the fires where they might gather to warm themselves from the cold without.

Banner graphic source: Photo (detail) of a mixed media work, "Boy Lights Fire" (2010) by David Lynch. This piece was included in an exhibition of Lynch's early work at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 2014, and this image is sourced from a write-up of that exhibition at The Art Blog. Used here under asserted fair use rights.

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