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Wish List: Review of The Other Wish by Diane Swan

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Wishes are those fanciful things we have as children (à la Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star...”). Wishes often contradict reason: When we grow up, we call them goals. Or intentions, or mission statements, or objectives. Mate the youthful “wish list” with the grown-up “to-do” list, and voilà: We have the “bucket list.” The mushy mix of desires triggered by celebrations such as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day can leave some of us clutching tattered lists, eyeing stagnant resolutions and nursing our sweet-and-sour hearts. Humans — what big dream bags we are! Yet in that ceaseless wishing lies some of our shared humanity. For Diane Swan, author of The Other Wish, therein lies poetry.

Swan’s first full-length collection fulfills the need for a comprehensive gathering of her work; nearly half of the book’s 73 poems have previously appeared in publications ranging from Alaska Quarterly Review to Yankee Magazine, as well as in Swan’s chapbook, Jewelweed, published in 1994 by State Street Press. The Barre resident is a member of the Wayside Poets, a quartet who critique each other’s work. Swan’s poems have the intimacy of a diary, the dignity of an actual swan and the diction of a canny novelist.

“Am I the only one / who thought the fox was hunting?” begins the collection’s first poem, “Foxhunt,” based on a painting by Winslow Homer. Swan explores innocence and experience as the viewer of the painting comes to realize that the fox is actually not hunting but hunted, hampered by deep snow and menaced from above: “When the museum guide points out / in the upper right-hand corner a cloud / of crows, black feathered headdress / of a God, stiletto beaks aimed/ earthward toward the animal…”

This is not the last time the crows will appear as counterpoint to a wish. Issues of hunter and hunted, menace and blessing recur as the birds roil up in Swan’s other poems. In “Crows,” their “black cries” echo a prayer chain for a terminally ill young man. “Are these our voices then, gathering /… hoarse from pleading?” the speaker asks. But the crows’ voices aren’t pleading: They are “vagrant, criminal, / Hollering No!

In “Anthony’s Diner,” the speaker must recognize her own complicity when confronted with “that black teepee of crows / I saw on the road… / all business, sharing / this beautiful, violent day.” In “Like Magic,” the crows themselves do not appear, but there’s an echo of their “stiletto beaks” from “Foxhunt” in the description of a father arriving home from work, “knives / bristling from his belt — obscenities / to hone on my mother’s leather silence.”

Swan’s crows suggest nature’s otherness. If humans are big wish bags, satchels of desire, the crows seem to act simply and directly, without premeditation or dependence on intermediary forces. They do not wish; they just are. The speaker in Swan’s poems sometimes moves toward the crows, sometimes stands still observing, perhaps fearing that otherness.

Do the birds evoke the inevitability of death? Perhaps, but that seems too simplistic and reductive for the complexity expressed in the poem “Invitation,” in which Swan writes, “My husband is worried / that I will leave the party / and follow the house-sized / crow into the woods.” Rather than making a decision, the speaker lingers halfway between the party and the bird, where she can perceive “no sound / but the small black bones / of words stringing themselves / on sentences, / lives linking lives.”

As the speaker stands there wanting (wishing for) the oncoming darkness (maybe of evening, maybe of the crow, maybe of distance, maybe of home), she describes “feeling myself drawn — / a forked stick / toward a deep uncovered well.”

As the wishes throughout this collection mount, they, like the conversations in “Invitation,” are “strung together” with Swan’s exact and grown-up language. Among them are the wish “to return to the place / before we had souls, before we were / a twinkle in his Irish eye” (“Like Magic”); the wish to rise up, “like in the spring bloodroot, jewelweed / and trillium — saying here we go again” (“Jewelweed”); and, paradoxically, the wish “to stay deep under, / to live without light / like the deepest blind fish” (“The Other Wish”).

Finally, there is the fundamental human desire to have the unhaveable, as when the speaker in “Foxhunt” wants to have only her first impression, her uninterrupted innocence, the image of Homer’s fox setting out “on the trail of something sweet, a happiness, / the silence swimming from that lifted paw, / the prey I don’t imagine, safely missing.”

Again and again, Swan thematizes a wishful thinking that seems to defy or negate lived experiences. Perhaps another word for what lines like those in “Foxhunt” enact is prayer — asking for assistance in achieving the impossible.

Novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz once said, “When someone wants something so fiercely — they should just get it.” That might be more magical than logical thinking, but readers in search of a mature, enchanting voice and devotees of Swan’s elegantly crafted poems will get exactly what they want in The Other Wish.

"The Other Wish" by Diane Swan, 84 pages. $15.

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