Living Time (Brian Swann, QRL 1978)

I own so many books I have never read that my reading adventures really should begin at home — and yet the library always calls, and all too often, I answer.  In a recent exploration I discovered the Quarterly Review of Literature, a literary magazine which ran from 1943 into the late 1990s, publishing poetry and prose of emerging or neglected writers, in some cases providing the first English translations of foreign authors. I love literary magazines, and I love poetry, and so — why not? I picked up volume 21 from 1978, which is the first of the ‘Poetry Series’ — an attempt, the editors Theodore and Renée Weiss explain, to provide a venue for poets to publish coherent collections of their work rather than just scattering poems across various magazines. This volume contains five collections; I plan to sample from each of them in turn over the next five Mondays. The first is Living Time by Brian Swann, a poet still working today. Most of his work in this collection did not speak to me, but these two poems I liked very much.

The Owl in the Borghese Gardens

An owl sat somewhere near the wall
hooting, turning the air a strange light.
Now and then a car passed
or wind shuffled a bough,
or something inside the gardens would shriek
or scuttle.
I went to the window looking for the voice,
but it shifted with my eyes.
It seemed everywhere. The cold of marble
numbed my feet, so back I went to bed.
In the silence, a bough falling, then the call
again, taking night
on its own terms, turning it
to the owl’s advantage, collecting
each sliver.
And I gathered each call,
trying not to listen,

The Portiere’s Wife

With twelve singing canaries in a cage
hung from her window,

the portiere’s wife moves about
in the dark of her room.

the portiere’s cat moves along
the top of the dark of the wall,

brushing ivy-tods and ten white blossoms
that cling to thin branches of a young

cherry-tree in her garden, till
rain stops the cat in his tracks,

hauls in the birds, makes each ivy-leaf
jump like a nerve, and drips

into the courtyard, while the portiere’s wife
from the dark of her bird-filled room

watches how it greens each flagstone,
listens to it drown out the birds,

hears the Angelus start up to
end day and drown the hard rain

till the thunder climbs over the bells.

I am not certain why it is I liked those two but not the rest; my aesthetics of poetry is almost entirely wordless still. But as I continue to read poetry, and write my own, and think about it all, perhaps I will find the words to explain what it is I am looking for.


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