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 Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage at

More in Arts & Culture

Students perform their original pieces prior to watching ‘Hamilton’ on March 14, 2018. Photo by Christopher Nelson
Seattle Students Find Empowering Lessons in ‘Hamilton’

High schoolers draw parallels between modern and historic struggles after watching the Broadway hit.

Full Upstream Music Fest Lineup Revealed

The reunited Jawbreaker joins Miguel, The Flaming Lips, and a myriad of local bands.

Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform Jerome Robbins’ <em>The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody)</em> as part of its season-opening Jerome Robbins Festival in September. Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2018–19 Season Balances Old Favorites and Premieres

The upcoming slate also feature a Jerome Robbins Festival.

Pick List: Moisture Festival, Seattle Youth Symphony, Nirvana at MoPop

Seattle’s best entertainment events this week.

Photo by Nicola Dove/IFC Films
The Scathing Commie-dy of ‘The Death of Stalin’

Armando Iannucci’s latest film provides razor sharp pseudo-historical satire.

Illustration by Taylor Dow
Healing Crisis

A feisty Mars and tender Chiron make for a complex new Moon.

<em>Come From Away</em> kicks off 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2018–19 season. Photo by Matthew Murphy
5th Avenue Theatre Reveals Its 2018–19 Season

Find hope in performances of musical favorites like ‘Annie’ and ‘Come From Away.’

Pick List: Lorde, Jason McCue, Melissa Kagerer

Seattle’s best entertainment events this week.

Stanley Tucci and Addison Timlin get too close in Submission. Courtesy Great Point Media/Paladin
Unlearned Lessons

While Stanley Tucci shines, ‘Submission’ feels uncomfortably pre-#MeToo.

Most Read