Gary Swaim’s book A Perhaps Line asks readers to not only wrestle with the division between the material and immaterial, but with the placement of the poems themselves. The poems are divided into two sections, “Poetry of the Material World” and “Poetry of the Immaterial World.” The first section, “Poetry of the Material World,” does contain poems rooted in the physical, especially “The Artist and the Model” and “Accordion Dreams.” However, the fifth poem in the book is the first of several about a six month coma, which masterfully addresses physical limitation, hallucination and the journey of the mind. The placement of these poems is striking, as it influences the readings of later poems such as “Nausicaa” and “Scaramouche.” Are these explorations of literary figures born from dreams and coma-induced hallucinations? After all, we learn in the poem “These Arms, These Shoulders” that the coma brought Milton, Rilke and Dante to the mind of the narrator (disclosed as Swaim in the preface).
Swaim claims an “arbitrary” placement of the poems in the book. However, the tension in the placement creates stronger meaning. The second section, “Poetry of the Immaterial World” holds a series of poems about Adam and Eve, which are so anchored in physical lust and dissension it makes the reader ask “what is immaterial in this?” The placement itself adds a layer of meaning and exploration that would be lost if the poems were in the first section. “Stations of the Cross” is rooted in the physical and unbearably graphic. The depravity creates an ache for an escape to the immaterial (or the immaterial described physically at least)–for Christ risen in heaven. Yet the poem closes with only the hope of the Resurrection.
Even an insightful arrangement of poems is not enough to carry the weight of a collection, and Swaim’s poems do not disappoint. The poems have strength individually and reach from life towards death, and create a yearning for life from death. The poems “What Night Questions” and “Three Penny Nails” accomplish mourning a father’s death without sentimentality. The reader is left with the concrete nature of loss (wood shim and window jambs) and the rising that echoes throughout the collection. The book travels through terror of near death, too soon death, the agony lust can bring, and yet the final poem “Nine-Eleven” ends with the assertion that “all things rise again.” We are left holding a book that looks at the frailty and evil in life and chooses to have faith. We are encouraged to do the same.
Gary Swaim is a Professor Emeritus of Perelandra College