THE FIDDLEHEAD, issue #231, SPRING 2007
(University of New Brunswick, Fredericton NB, Canada)
Review by: Robert Priest
GOD IS IN THE CRACKS, A NARRATIVE IN VOICES
by Robert Sward
Black Moss Press (Canada) – Literary Press Group, Distributor.
ISBN 0-88753-422-8 - $17.00
At this point you have to say that Robert Sward is a master poet. Not because he's suddenly writing long multi-voiced tone-poems like The Wasteland (he did that already in the consumptive and addictive Scarf Gobble Wallow Inventory), or because he's prodding the light nastily trying to squeeze some extra darkness out of it, (read his Death’s Thousand Year old Fiancée for that,) but because his latest: God is in the Cracks is so effortlessly compact, honed, wise and quotable all at once. Also, for anyone who loves poetry collections, which double as mini-novels as exemplified by Ondaatje's Billy the Kid or Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, this will be a welcome addition to the genre.
For the most part the collection recounts the tale of Sward's relationship with his father, a Jewish podiatrist turned Rosicrucian who never quite recovers from the loss of his wife, a former Miss Chicago. But if that makes it sound like it might be one more lachrymose addition to the school of confession and melancholy it's not. The book is brimming with wit, humor and sweetly recollected laughs. The foot doctor father with his soul/sole focus gives Sward comic entry to mind/matter questions.
“The soul is rooted in the foot” (One Stop Foot Shop)
“Invisible? I’ll show you Invisible” (Lenore Gets on Top)
“You can’t chase the invisible/do that you’ll wind up everywhere.” (A Man Needs a Place to Stand)
The incidents related often read like strange life-koans Sward has just been lucky enough to stumble upon and accidentally get into the perfect language – but these are the happy accidents of a true poet. Via its Rosicrucian underpinnings the book touches again and again on the paradox of nothingness, a concept, which both Sward and his father are willing to bandy and subvert for whatever purposes are called upon by the exigencies of life. But it is more than a concept for Sward - it is seemingly a practice -- in that the young Sward though ever-present as the suite of poems unfolds is also strangely almost invisible and all-but silent. Indeed even the family dog, (surrealistically endowed with the power of speech) gets more lines than Sward does here. Thus Sward in this story of invisibilities deftly clears the way to the narrative with a disappearing trick of his own.
“No is my Kaddish
No is my prayer
I am the no
I am the not…
I am the un-bar’d mitzvah,
Jew from nowhere
Jew, pause in the beating of the heart” (Against Darkness)
And though the book is in essence a spiritual and philosophical enquiry it manages to be so without a moment’s preachiness or sanctimony. Here, once again, Sward’s assumed invisibility comes into play. We don’t sense either his faith or doubt in the cosmology his father espouses. Like a Zen master he offers us not answers and certainties but questions and paradoxes.
“Meaning’s on backorder
The sun and the moon and the stars
they’re all on backorder
Nothing’s there. Nothing ever existed” (And ‘the other side’?)
In the wryness of his humor and the melodious accuracy of his dialog Sward reminds me of great American writers like Vonnegut and Twain but he also reminds me of Coleman’s Barks’ rendition of Rumi, for he has mastered the art of prodding language simply and effectively towards its maximum point of meaning – almost as though to bring each word to its cracking point – and therefore, in the tropes of this book, close to that point where truth or God leaks out -- or in. For as Leonard Cohen says in one of the books epigrams:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Like Rumi too there's a lot of sexy stuff here. Sward’s father exploits the carnality/spirit juncture with opportunistic renderings of the Talmud:
“The upward triangle
of the star of David
is a penis
penetrating the downward triangle of the vulva.”
“Kissing is praying too; darling. Look, I bow my head,
same as when I pray”
“Love – marriage – intercourse, what are they, darling?
A tangling of toes, right?
So how does this feel, Lenore?
Good… and this?” (The Holiness in Sex)
The elder Sward continues to offer his aphoristic advice even after death:
“Darkness is a candle too.”
“The invisible is more existent than all the visible things.”
But to my ear Sward’s afterlife father is wrong when he admonishes his son:
“I have a treasure now, it’s true,
but no body
and you, you meshugge, you have a body
but no treasure” (Checking Out)
Sward does indeed have a treasure and it glitters generously on every page of God is in the Cracks. In an era where poets pursue virtually no policy of engagement with the general public it is a joy to read a book like this, which is as accessible to the layman as it is delightful to connoisseurs.
Robert Priest of Toronto is one of that small group of Canadian artists who has been successful in both the literary and musical fields. He has published many books of poetry and prose including The Visible Man (1979), Sadness of Spacemen (l980), The Man who Broke out of the Letter X (l984), and The Mad Hand (l988 - recipient of the Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award.) In l992
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...