Swiftisms

Café Alibi

By Adrienne Ho

A review of Café Alibi by Todd Swift

Published on October 1, 2002

Café Alibi
Todd Swift

DC Books
$14.95
paper
74pp
0-919688-53-5

Todd Swift is an unsettling writer. One of the things that strikes me about his latest poetry collection, Café Alibi, is the recurrence of the word “if.” The idea of possibility is an entirely palatable one, but these poems couple a kind of knack for speculation with contemporary culture and jargon that is at first quite disorienting. Swift introduces a traditional image, then promptly spins it out of convention, as he does in “Letting Go”:

It is the simplest thing
to open up the fingers,
let the teacup
tell its fortune on the floor.

By transferring the divination properties of the tea leaves to the teacup, Swift succeeds in heightening a more leisurely scene to a perhaps disastrous one, and what often happens is that the poems acquire a fresh and unique outlook. This success is also sometimes Swift’s vice; because there are so many twists, a deceptively skilful one is less convincing: “Winter Sports” catalogues a few brand name fabrics alongside Austrian politics, and in “Penthouse Revisited,” Vaseline is given artistic integrity akin to Vermeer.

Many of these poems feature train stations, cafés, and motels – motifs that might stem from the poet’s peregrinations in Budapest and Paris – and many express, if not “if,” then at least its sentiment. Swift is perpetually curious about what might have been and what could possibly be, and takes a no-holds-barred idealistic stance. “If only the girl or boy…were leading us to a balcony/to have our first kiss,” in “The Usher,” or “If I were ever contracted to/design a proper café,” in the title poem, render a perfect-world approach that Swift himself acknowledges, welcomes, and explores. Although, as the speakers of his poems riff on the idea of the possible – the prospects of this thing happening, or that – so does Swift linger sometimes beyond the poems’ limit, a line or two too long.

In the way that each moment bears an opportunity at happenstance, Swift is simultaneously drawn towards things despite (or because of) their repelling traits: attraction to an operation scar that is “still disturbing, despite also being/an arousing property” in “The Bewilderment of the Eyes,” and venturing near light only to find its unexpected heat. One of the most lucid poems in the collection, “Water, Running” (a recent honourable mention in the Davoren Hanna Poetry Competition) celebrates a marriage while reflecting on its collapse with lines like “Our marriage is water running/in a bathtub with no plug.” Here, Swift pulls no tricks – he doesn’t need to – and lets the images do the work of rendering despair.

…these many layered fountains
you loved, at the gardens in Istanbul,
which in their motion are symbols of
an Islamic paradise in letterless
signs more pure than if written;
like cold champagne cascading
over wide glasses at a wedding.

Swift’s attention to rhythm and half-rhyme (layered, loved; motion, symbols of; paradise, signs) is evidence that his sonic capabilities continue off the page readily into the world of performance. mRb

Adrienne Ho's poetry chapbook Murmurs was published by Junction Books in 2001.

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