Book Bag: ‘Taking Residence’ by Wally Swist; ‘I Believe I’ll Go Back Home’ by Thomas S. Curren

Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2021 1:37:05 PM

Taking Residence

By Wally Swist

Shanti Arts Publishing

 

Wally Swist’s 17th full-length collection of poetry, “Taking Residence,” offers a simple but striking cover illustration, mostly in black and white. The silhouettes of two small birds, facing one another and each clutching a twig in its beak, stand atop a nest they’re building — a nest shaped like a heart.

It’s a fitting introduction to one of the key themes of Swist’s new collection: that true love and understanding come from living in the moment and, as a line from the title poem puts it, “learning what it is that is taking residence in the heart.”

Swist, a former longtime Amherst resident now living in South Hadley, has always drawn on a number of sources for his work, in particular the natural world and Eastern religions and philosophies, as well as the world of literature and art. But in “Taking Residence,” he ranges further, covering politics, the passing of a good friend, and childhood memories.

“Taking Residence,” by Shanti Arts Publishing of Brunswick, Maine, also features Swist’s translations of 26 poems by Federico Garcia Lorca and St. John of the Cross (Spanish) and Giuseppe Ungaretti (Italian).

Swist bookends his new collection with poems recounting childhood stories, giving a sense to the book of a life fully lived. In the opening work, “Rock and Meadow,” the narrator relates the story of a friend, who tells him that when she was eight, she “perched / on the rock that she claimed as a throne / in the meadow near her home, // ruling over her peers in the neighborhood with / her scepter, or rather a deadfall stick. // Now, how wonderful is that?”

Years later, the narrator wishes he could “stop imagining” that their lives might have have been realized in some similar way: “for me to be / that rock for her and for her to be that meadow, // in which she rests upon her throne and watches / the wind’s scepter wave over summer grasses.”

In “Modern Bestiary,” an especially engaging section of his new book, Swist writes of encounters with various animals — minks, snakes, moles, birds — and their place in the world, including on his own doorstep. “The Snake” is a warm and humorous recollection of the poet coming upon a modest-sized reptile as he takes his recycling out of the house: “its head poised about five or six / inches off the ground in a right angle // to its body.”

The narrator is pleased with the snake’s seeming ease with him and its “primed electric elegance, its watchful // stillness, the penetrating incisiveness / of the dots of its bulging black eyes.”

“Giraffes,” however, is a meditation on our country’s increasingly bitter political divide and diminshed circumstances, with Swist imagining Americans as the long-necked creatures, separated into two herds by a mountain between them and grazing on the leaves of the lower branches of trees — because those on the upper branches have become dessicated.

“As we browse trunk to trunk, we think of the herd // on the other side of the mountain; we have not been able to love, / nor have we found a pathway, both of us only having evolved // to being giraffes, roving the woodlands without ever satiating / our hunger, by galloping first in one direction, then another.”

Yet Swist always finds more beauty in the world than darkness, whether watching a heron at a pond on a fall day — “this magician, this master angler, // standing in silence / amid the willows, / and wading among the reeds” — or remarking on the simple pleasure of selecting a good red pepper to be part of a sandwich.

“Cannily constructed, it is what the French call a well-made book,” writes one reviewer of the new collection. “[I]t is stunningly rangy, comprising insights into politics, the meditative life, the natural world and far more.”

 

I Believe I’ll Go Back Home: Roots and Revival in New England Folk Music

By Thomas S. Curren, Bright Leaf/University of Massachusetts Press

 

When people talk about the folk revival in the U.S. of the late 1950s and early 1960s, much of the focus seems to be on New York City, where Bob Dylan got his start and performers like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, and Peter, Paul & Mary also became big names.

But in “I Believe I’ll Go back Home,” Thomas S. Curren looks at the how the folk revival played out in New England during the same period, in coffee houses and small clubs of Boston and Cambridge and other locations that helped launch the careers of artists such as Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie (a UMass Amherst alumna), Dayle Stanley, Bonnie Raitt, and Chris Smither (who lives in Amherst).

Curren, the executive director of the Franklin Land Trust, grew up attending many of those folk shows himself and brings a lot of enthusisam to his book, published by Bright Leaf, an imprint of University of Massachusetts Press. He is also the chairman of the board of Folk New England, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that preserves material documenting the cultural legacy of folk music in the region.

Indeed, Curren’s book examines not just at the folk music scene circa 1958-1968 but the roots of folk music in New England going back 250 years. As he writes in a preface, “I have written this book because I believe … the Boston-Cambridge Folk Revival of the 1960s is a crucial hinge that connects the roots, revolution, and reform movements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England with the deficits, possibilities, and perils of the present day.”

For instance, Curren examines the growth of “singing schools” in colonial New England, sparked by “intinerant song masters” who traveled the countryside to teach harmony singing, moving away from rigid church hymns and in that way helping to thaw “the glacial crust of harsh clerical rule” long maintained in the region.

“I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” also looks at the important contributions that enslaved people, Native Americans, and others made to the folk music tradition, and not just in New England. But the heart of the book examines the growth of the folk scene in Boston and Cambridge, the rise of music publications, and the sense, as Tom Rush told Curren, that “there was something unusual going on here; that this was something that was really special.”

Curren also puts the folk music revival in context with the times, such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, as well as the general music scene in and around Cambridge and Boston: “On any given night … you could catch bluesman Taj Mahal at Club 47 [now Club Passim], drop in on Jeff Gutcheon’s barrelhouse piano over at the Orleans, and then grab Jesse Colin Young’s last set down at the Unicorn.”

The author adds that the folk music revival was tied to a sense that mainstream America, with its materialism, segregation and other problems, needed to change — and he’s written the book, he adds, in the hope that “it might be a resource for anyone who felt called … to bear witness to the truth, the beauty, the need for contrition, and the unrequited love that live together at the heart of American culture.”

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




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