Great Northwest Poet Joan Swift Never Had a Book Worthy of Her Talent. Until Now

‘The Body That Follows Us,’ published two months after her death, is also her best.

I’ve written before about the blow suffered by Seattle’s literary community when poet Joan Swift died in March. At 90, she represented a clear link to Seattle’s literary past. She was one of Seattle poetry godfather Theodore Roethke’s last students, and given her propensity to guide and encourage younger poets, her influence will be felt for many decades.

I talked with Swift’s friends about her life and legacy, and everyone had a favorite Swift poem, a work that would burrow deep into their chests and change them forever. Some admired the frank poems she wrote about her daughter’s suicide. Others were grateful to find their experiences reflected in the biographical pieces Swift wrote about sexual assault. A few thought her poems about the unfair rawness of nature built on America’s naturalist tradition in a bold new way. But among all that praise, one absence stood out: a book that fully represented the depth and scope of her work.

Swift published plenty of books, of course. And they all have high notes worthy of a reader’s attention. But I found while reading The Tiger Iris, say, or her chapbook Snow on a Crocus, that Swift’s essential Swiftness did not conform easily into something book-shaped. Individually, the poems were all strong, but they didn’t blend into the kind of journey you’ll take with a truly great book of poetry.

Luckily for us, Swift had one final gift. In the months before her death, she was working with Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson on a final poetry collection. Johnson says that Swift was insistent that they get the book “extremely right.” She had strong opinions about every aspect of the production, up to and including the font. “She wanted to carry it through to the best of her ability,” Johnson told me. By the time she passed away, all the major decisions had been made and the book was ready to go.

Read the rest of this review in Seattle Weekly’s print edition or online here at seattlereviewofbooks.com. Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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