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Book Bag: “Candling the Eggs” by Wally Swist; “The River Bank” by Kij Johnson


Friday, September 29, 2017

By Steve Pfarrer

 

CANDLING THE EGGS

By Wally Swist

Shanti Arts Publishing

wallyswist.com

On the heels of a new volume of poetry, “The View of the River,” published this past summer, Wally Swist has released yet another work, “Candling the Eggs,” a collection of nearly 70 poems that Swist believes might be some of his strongest work ever.

“Candling the Eggs” touches on many of the topics the Amherst poet has become known for over the years: the beauty of the natural world, the importance of being in the moment and treasuring life’s small bits of pleasure, the life of the spirit. What seems to animate the poems in the new collection is the sense that Swist is fully realizing those ideas in his own life.

Take “Presence on the Mountain,” for instance, in which he describes suddenly coming upon two deer on a hike. He is struck by the way they muscle their way through downed trees and by “ … their beauty by being just who / they were, and they’re not even / noticing me standing to the side … they kept at it, crossing the low / ridge, until they were out / of sight, allowing me to witness/ the revelation of their mystery.”

There are odes to music, a favorite sandwich shop, love and memories of friends now past. But Swist also tackles some of the uglier currents in contemporary life, from the drunken vandalism committed by college students (“What is Essential”) to the current occupant of the White House (“Trump”), to the mindless violence of suicide bombers (“Suicide Vest”).

In the latter poem, Swist suggests terrorists who kill innocent people will neither please their god nor settle their souls: “You will begin to see what you enter / is neither heaven nor is it certainly / paradise, and you will need to return, / in order to make amends again; / and it will be necessary to see / and witness all of the pain you have / caused … ”

On a gentler note, the collection’s title poem recalls a story from Swist’s early boyhood: sitting in a damp but comforting farmhouse cellar with an elderly neighbor, as she showed him how to incubate an egg and illuminate the embryo chick inside it by holding a candle to the shell.

It’s one of Swist’s earliest introductions both to the natural world and that of the soul: “… the time I spent in / Mrs. Dornisch’s cellar with her became / what was one of my first spiritual / experiences, the quiet there so superb / that I recall whenever I had a thought, / no matter how small it was, that / Mrs. Dornisch could hear it.”

As one critic sees it, that poem serves as a metaphor for the poet’s larger purpose: “Swist holds a translucent eggshell of the world up to the illumination of his visions in a dark age; he looks for signs and sees them before the rest of us even know what will be born.”

 

THE RIVER BANK

By Kij Johnson

Illustrated by Kathleen Jennings

Small Beer Press

kijjohnson.com

“The Wind in the Willows,” written by the Scottish-born Kenneth Grahame and published in 1908, has long been considered one of the classic books of children’s literature, a tale of four anthropomorphised animals — a mole, rat, toad and badger — and their adventures in the English countryside, particularly along the Thames River.

Now American fantasy and science-fiction author Kij Johnson has written a sequel, “The River Bank,” in what she says is an attempt to add a new chapter to a personal favorite while also addressing some of its outdated stereotypes.

“As a child, I adored this book,” Johnson writes in an afterword. “I didn’t notice the entrenched assumptions about privilege, class, and gender. Later, as an adult, these things bothered me. This book is an imperfect attempt to open up the world of the River Bank a little.”

She has done that by introducing some new characters such as a young lady mole, Beryl, and her good friend, Rabbit. Beryl is a successful writer, an “authoress” of murder mysteries, while Rabbit has a taste for wildness and adventure that exceeds that of Toad, the scion of a rich family whose sudden obsessions for the latest new thing always got him in trouble in “The Wind in the Willows.”

The introduction of female characters in “The River Bank,” published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton, causes a bit of consternation for the boys’ club from the original book: “I am sure they are very nice animals,” says the Mole at one point, “but — females, you know. You know what they are like.... I don’t see why we need anyone else. We went along admirably enough without them.”

But Publisher’s Weekly says Johnson’s sequel shows how wrong Mole is about that, in a way that is “sparkling and witty without sacrificing narrative tension. This is a sequel that will hit the spot for Grahame fans, but isn’t afraid to build on his characters and fill in some gaps for a modern readership.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.