[Introduction by Jack Foley]
UNCLE DOG BECOMES A BODHISATTVA:
AN INTRODUCTION TO ROBERT SWARD
You don’t look like a Canadian.
—Saul Bellow to Robert Sward
* * *
All I am really hungry for is everything.
Reminiscences from Cornell University, forty years ago: I remember the eyes most of all: large, hazel-brown, luminous, kindly. And the manner: hesitant but pleasant. And the sense one had of a gentle, oddly elegant madness. He was tall: one thought he must look like Robert Lowell. And there was insight: he would stammer, but there were always ideas, intelligence, something worth listening to. And the oddity of the poems:
I did not want to be old Mr.
Garbage man, but uncle dog
who rode sitting beside him.
Uncle dog had always looked
to me to be truck-strong
wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford
Of a dog. I did not want
to be Mr. Garbage man because
all he had was cans to do.
(“Uncle Dog: The Poet At 9”)
Robert Sward’s career began in the late 1950s. He is a well-known poet, but he is not nearly as well known, as he should be. Sward’s poems are often comic, but they are never only comic—or for that matter only seriocomic. X.J. Kennedy is a seriocomic poet of considerable capacity, but he is nothing like Sward who actually has more in common with W.B. Yeats, for whom the Trembling of the Veil of the Temple was a constant source of inspiration. Sward’s poems are the result of a plunge into a never fully ironized, often hilarious sense of mysticism: they are the product of a restless, spiritually adventuresome sensibility masking itself as a stand-up comedian. Who but a mystic would write a passage like this—funny, but alive with the via negativa:
The dodo is two feet high, and laughs.
A parrot, swan-sized, pig- scale-legged
bird. Neither parrot, nor pig—nor swan.
Its beak is the beak of a parrot,
a bare-cheeked, wholly beaked and speechless
parrot. A bird incapable of
anything—but laughter. And silence:
a silence that is laughter—and fact.
And a denial of fact (and bird).
It is a sort of turkey, only
not a turkey, not anything. —Not
able to sing, not able to dance
not able to fly.
Sward describes himself as “Born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago, bar mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, university professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College), newspaper editor, food reviewer, father of five children, husband to four [now five] wives*….”
Sward’s mother died in 1948 at the age of 42; her last words were a request “to keep [Robert’s] feet on the ground.” The poet describes his podiatrist father as handsome—”a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn”—as well as “ambitious and hard-working,” a “workaholic.” By the time Sward wrote the poems collected in Rosicrucian in the Basement, the father has blossomed into a full-fledged eccentric, a visionary adrift in a world which doesn’t comprehend him:
“There are two worlds,” he says lighting incense, “the seen
and the unseen…
This is my treasure,” he says.
Like uncle dog, Sward’s father is a comic version of the poet—but the terms have changed a little. Sward’s father quotes Rilke (albeit unknowingly):
“We of the here-and-now, pay our respects
to the invisible.
Your soul is a soul,” he says, turning to me,
“but body is a soul, too. As the poet says,
‘we are the bees of the golden hive of the invisible.’”
“What poet, Dad?”
“The poet! Goddammit, the poet,” he yells.
(“Rosicrucian in the Basement”)
It was only after his mother’s death that the father became interested in Rosicrucianism and the world of the “invisible.” Sward points out that the year his father became “a strict and devout” Rosicrucian was also the year that he, Robert, flunked algebra. The father’s later amorous adventures with “Lenore” (shades of Poe) give the son the wonderful poem, “Lenore and the Leopard Dog.” “I’ve told you before, dear,” says the father, “God rewards you for kissing.”
Like his father, Sward “lives in another world.” But the young man is not so certain which world that is. When his father says, “As above, so below”—the famous formula attributed to Hermes Trismegistus—the son answers, “I’m not so sure.” The word “below” is partly ironic since the podiatrist father is always talking about feet—”God has feet like anyone else. You know it and I know it”—and because the father carries out his rituals in the basement. Yet it is also a serious assertion about the relationship between the world of the senses and the “other” world. Sward’s own impulses led him away from both Rosicrucianism and his family’s Judaism to the East. In “Prayer for My Mother,” one of his most moving and accomplished poems, Sward is accused of being a “Jew who got away,” a “sinner.” But he also celebrates one of his meditation teachers, Swami Muktananda, “the biggest party animal of them all”:
Seven years I hung out with him,
even flew to India, meditated
in his cave
scorpions, malaria mosquitoes
so illumined they chanted back.
(“The Biggest Party Animal Of Them All”)
Sward writes, “I… was nicknamed ‘Banjo Eyes,’ after the singer Eddie Cantor. Friends joked about my name: “The Sward is mightier than the Sword.” And because I had a zany imagination, I had only to say, “Hey, I have an idea,” and other eight-year-olds would collapse laughing. I was regarded as an oddball, an outsider. I had few friends.
Robert Sward learned early that the comic, the “zany,” was a mask by which one could assert oneself—through which one would be listened to. In his poems, the mask remains, but it is at the service of an essentially visionary impulse: “the vision, the life that it requires.” The word “dream” haunts his work. Sward remains simultaneously “not so sure” and utterly certain:
For two, maybe three, minutes
I saw two worlds interpenetrating
jewels into jewels,
silver suns, electric whiteness,
World ‘A’ and world ‘B’
one vibrating blue pearl,
world like a skyful of blue suns
Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!
(“The Biggest Party Animal Of Them All”)
Neither in “this world” nor “the other,” Chicago-born, a U.S. Navy veteran who served a stint in the combat zone in Korea (1952), Sward moved to Canada in 1969 to take up a position as Poet-in-Residence at the University of Victoria. While there he began to practice yoga, started a publishing company (Soft Press), met and for twelve years was married to a Canadian. Indeed, two of his children are Canadian citizens as is Sward himself—in truth, a citizen, at heart, of both countries. At once a Canadian and American poet, one with a foot in both worlds, Sward also inhabits an enormous in-between. It will come as no surprise to readers to find that his poems get at the moment of truth by being deeply unsettled, by refusing to rest in any particular other than the cosmic ambiguity of the wholly visionary and the wholly sensual. Past, present and future—and their tenses—assail him equally:
As a teacher, I talk. That’s present.
For thirty years as a teacher, I talked. That’s past.
It may only be part time, but I will talk. That’s future.
“During the late 1960s and early ‘70s,” the poet writes, “American men arriving in Canada were automatically assumed to be Vietnam War protestors, draft dodgers, or deserters… in 1969, I was a married, thirty-six-year-old, honorably discharged and decorated Korean War veteran. I was also the father of three children.” Again the oddball, the outsider.
Sward taught at the University of Victoria from 1969 to 1973 and worked in Toronto from 1979 to 1985, when he returned to the United States.
“In January 1986, Sward moved from the mountains overlooking Monterey Bay (California) to Santa Cruz, a seismically active community of forty-five thousand people located seventy-five miles south of San Francisco. Another milestone.
Sward’s friend, poet Morton Marcus remarked that “the physical and psychical environment [took] him by the tongue to new spiritual heights, which… slowed his responses to a meditative stillness and (surprisingly) eased him back into such closed forms as sonnets and villanelles.” In Santa Cruz, while earning a living as a freelance journalist, Sward served as food reviewer (“Mr. Taste Test”) and, on one occasion, as the world’s skinniest Santa Claus.
Sward’s multiple marriages were by no means a source of pride: “I find each divorce hurts hurts hurts just as much, maybe more, than the one before… I have come to agree with Robert Graves, who says the act of love is a metaphor of spiritual togetherness, and if you perform the act of love with someone who means little to you, you’re giving away something that belongs to the person you do love or might love. The act of love belongs to two people in the way that secrets are shared… Promiscuity seems forbidden to poets…”
In June, 1987 Sward met visual artist Gloria Alford, also originally from Chicago. Sixteen years later Robert and Gloria are still together.
Robert Sward’s poetry has undergone many shifts—including, as Marcus points out, the shift to closed forms—but its fundamental impulse seems not to have changed since I first came upon it in the early 60s. Outwardly “zany” and fanciful, it is inwardly serious, troubled and questioning. He has written over twenty books of poetry as well as some fiction and non-fiction; in the late 1980s he entered the Internet, poems a-flying. He has produced CDs. He once described himself as “a heat-seeking cocky mocky poetry missile… a low-down, self-involved dirty dog. Woof woof.” He has noted how many of his poems have “to do with love, divorce, multiple marriage, aging, loss, and the challenge of bringing up children in a highly unstable world.” He identifies strongly with strange and sometimes hostile animals.
What is sought in all this work is liberation, illumination—it.
The joy of his writing is the joy of the quest. “The only thing better than being employed,” he says, “is being unemployed.” He has recently turned 70 and is producing work as fine as what he was producing forty years ago. He has not grown up exactly, but he has grown. “These days,” he says, “I’m paying more attention to Ben Franklin [‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’] and less to Blake with his lines about “the road of excess”. ‘From beyond the grave the poet’s father counsels him, “Spend some time at the Invisible College.”
When Robert Sward was a child his Rosicrucian father asked him, “So, Bobby, you too want to see God?” There is wisdom in Robert Sward’s poetry, but it is the kind of wisdom we call “crazy.” The final “message” of this work is not to transcend intense contradiction (or “doubleness,” as he would say) but to live deeply, even joyously, within it:
I hardly unpack
and get ready for this lifetime and it’s time
To move on to the next…
—JACK FOLEY, BERKELEY/OAKLAND, CA
*Contemporary Authors, Volume 206, A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, Gale/Thomson, 2003
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...