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Book Bag — ‘On Beauty: Essays, Reviews, Fiction and Plays’ and ‘The Map of Eternity’ by Wally Swist

Published: 1/18/2019 9:02:41 AM


By Wally Swist

Adelaide Books

Amherst poet Wally Swist has been stretching his literary legs in the last several years, both in terms of productity and subject matter. Between publishing a number of new volumes of poetry, and then a collection of nonfiction writing, “Singing for Nothing,” Swist says he’s been taking stock of his life and his career as a writer.

His run continues with two new books: “On Beauty,” a collection of essays, reviews, plays and fiction; and “The Map of Eternity,” a new volume of poetry.

“On Beauty” began as an essay of the same name that Swist wrote after seeing the 2012 Michael Haneke film “Amour” a few years ago. It’s a drama about an aging French couple, Georges and Anne, (played by Jean-Luis Trintignant and the now-late Emmanuelle Riva), retired music teachers who face a new reality when Anne suffers two strokes and Georges must care for her.

The movie, he writes, despite its seeming depiction of struggle and pain, is “a testament to the beauty of being alive in the world.… If we allow ourselves to discover the epiphany in the commonplace in our lives, we realize, to our astonishment, that all along, through every disappointment and affliction, we can say, ‘it’s beautiful.’ ”

Expanding on that theme, Swist has included in his new book a number of reviews and reflections on favorite literary works and particular writers, such as the poet W.S. Merwin, and he looks admiringly at Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” the 2016 biopic about Emily Dickinson that was filmed partly in Amherst.

Though the movie has its flaws, Swist notes, overall its “penetrating and scrupuously long-gazing lens” brings “much grace in illuminating the ethos, while also lingering over the shadows, of the life of Amherst’s poet-recluse.”

Swist also includes two plays in the collection, the short “The Torn Shirt” and the longer “Epistles: A Love Story.” The latter, he notes, offers a counterpoint of sorts to “Amour” that reinforces the importance of finding beauty in different, and everyday, aspects of life.

“In the Michael Haneke film, love triumphs even in the face of death,” he writes. “In the play, love is squandered amid its own epiphanies.”

One critic says that he “loves the range” of Swist’s varied interests, especially his “incisive analysis of the various works of art and his eye for the beauty of things.”


By Wally Swist

Shanti Arts Publishing

The cover of Swist’s newest poetry collection, “The Map of Eternity,” evokes a bit of Norman Rockwell, or perhaps Edward Hopper, in its image of three swivel stools in a luncheonette with an art deco look, black and white tiles on the lower wall and a similar pattern on the linoleum floor.

That theme of looking back at the past animates part of the collection, which the poet has divided into three sections, defined by time: past, present and future. “The Map of Eternity” serves as the heading for the first section, and it’s also the title of one of the book’s most poignant poems, covering a shattering event: the death of Swist’s mother when he was a young boy.

In lines that recall a hot 1961 afternoon when he ate in a luncheonette with his mother just days before she died, Swist notes how that moment continues to reverberate through his life:

“However, this was a day / of grace, putting out a long thin tuber / of memory ... How it has / grown to connect that day to this one, this / day in which I rediscover that day, / ever so timelessly, in its own perpetuity: / cinematic and indelible in its reminiscence.”

How could he have known at that time, he adds, that he and his mother were moving through “an expanding / moment of the ineffable, one in which / I would come to be aware that / the map of eternity was only beginning / to spread out in all directions.”

Elsewhere in the new collection, Swist writes about one of his most central topics, the mystery and grace of the natural world, in poems such as “The Veil,” “The Rain in October,” and “After Haying.” He also offers some tart words on the current U.S. president in works such as “Jackass Bend”; he notes the way people’s eternal quest for money adds to the planet’s environmental woes.

Indeed, in “Cinderblock Garage,” he finds a symbol of the ultimate impermanence of much of what humankind has wrought, compared to nature’s longevity: a weak and aging garage that’s in danger of collapsing from too much accumulated snow.

The poem is also a reflection on the march of time, and of how the land around the tottering garage was once used for farming:

“Although everyone who can still recall / the stories is nearly too old to relay them, / we can only imagine the stories almost / retelling themselves, / as we stand silent amid its hulk, with our / very breath streaming / a frosty whisper amid / the hollowness in that cinderblock garage.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at






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