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Poetry and prose: Wally Swist’s meditations, and a new murder mystery 

  • Longtime Valley poet Wally Swist has a new collection out, “Evanescence,” that compiles 250 poems from over three decades of his career. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 09, 2020

For over three months, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into much of the art world, with live music, theater and dance performances shut down and most art galleries closed, though some venues are on the cusp of reopening to limited audiences.

But books are still being written, including these two by writers with Valley connections, in particular to Amherst.

“Evanescence: Selected Poems” by Wally Swist (Shanti Arts Publishing)

Wally Swist, a former longtime Amherst resident who now lives in South Hadley, has been writing critically acclaimed poetry for some 35 years. In what he and and his publisher are calling “a watershed collection,” he has compiled 250 of those poems in a new volume, “Evanescence,” that offers meditations on the natural world, spirituality, childhood memories, the pleasure of good food, and more.

Swist has won particular praise over the years for his evocations of nature and its importance in feeding the human spirit. The late poet Robert Creely once said of Swist’s work, “These poems are a beautifully perceptive reading of both the natural world and ourselves as its necessary testament and witness. If ‘seeing is believing,’ then Wally Swist can make believers of us all.”

The poet has also long made a study of Eastern religions and of Haiku, and that spirit informs early work such as “Tracks of Deer” from his 1991 collection “For the Dance.” This short poem depicts a moonlit night in which the narrator finds an ethereal beauty in a passage through a meadow.

“The last dusk gathers the troughs / and deep wells into its darkness; // the moon assumes its place beside / the silo’s reflection; a cloud of midges // condenses the air above the pond. / Winding paths worn through grass // cross the meadow suffused with lunar light. / I bend down, touch the earth.”

There are also moments of personal darkness such as “Left Unsaid,” in which the narrator contemplates suicide but is dissuaded by recalling the small pleasures one can find in life, from a glass of orange juice in the morning to the look of mist in nearby hills: “I will make use of the day every way I can, / While I am still here.”

Swist, who has also worked as a freelance editor and writer, has won numerous awards over the years and published work in “Commonweal,” “The North American Review,” “Rolling Stone” and other journals. His new collection is one all of his admirers will want to have. As poet Emily Grosholz says of his work, “Wally Swist evokes moments that surge up from the depths of memory, and live again and again.”

More information on “Evanescence” can be found at shantiarts.co.

Something I Keep Upstairs by Philip Crawford (Girl Friday Productions)

Part murder mystery, part unconventional coming-of-age story, “Something I Keep Upstairs” offers a split narrative as well, with the main part related in the first-person voice of Coleman Cooper, an awkward 23-year-old who’s struggling with anxiety and other mental health issues, though his self-deprecating voice can lend a humorous tone to his plight.

The story is set in the 1970s when, after spending time in a private hospital in southern New England, Coleman is sent to a new hospital, the Buchanan Institute, in the town of Pierrevert, Maine to try and get himself sorted out.

In Pierrevert, Coleman makes a pretty good connection with his new therapist, Wilson Haynes, who advises him to take a part-time job bartending at an inn in town (the hospital is an open-door unit that encourages patients to spend time outside its walls). Coleman begins to find some small measure of self-confidence in this new job, though he easily falls back on self-recrimination if someone accuses him of making mistakes.

He also discovers Pierrevert is not quite the quiet place it first appears. Reading an article in the local newspaper, he learns a prominent attorney had been stabbed to death some weeks back, the first murder in the town in almost 30 years. Then one of the hospital’s doctors is also sliced up; a second dies after he is poisoned.

The background to these grim tidings is filled in through excerpts from a book about the murders written by a local reporter, Hayley Blossom, a part-British writer who also appears as a character in the sections narrated by Coleman (she likes the gin and tonics he whips up for her at the inn). “Something I Keep Upstairs” proceeds in these separate narrations until in a sense they begin to intertwine, when Coleman unwittingly finds himself drawn up in the murder investigations.

The author of the novel, Philip Crawford, is an Amherst College graduate who worked as a Gazette reporter for a few years in the early 1990s. He later became a reporter and editor with the former International Herald Tribune in Paris and still lives in France today.

He has filled his debut novel with a host of interesting secondary characters, from a local cop to a beautiful young college student who takes a shine to awkward Coleman for awhile, though evidently just to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. Then there’s Skip Jones, the inn’s piano player, who gives lessons to Coleman, a lapsed piano student; that brings Coleman a little bit more out of his shell.

Coleman makes for an annoying narrator at times: As a reader, you sometimes feel like shaking him for his hangdog ways and pleading that he show more spirit (though at times he offers genuinely bleak glimpses of his childhood, such as abuse at the hands of his stepfather). Like Coleman’s therapist, Thaynes, says to him: “Put some mustard on it, Coleman!”

But he can flash a mordant wit describing his shortcomings, like when he shows up for a pickup basketball game wearing “gray Bermuda shorts below my knees, a white T-shirt, brown socks, and a pair of dirty Converse All Star high-tops ... this particular outfit sent my grade on the dork scale off the charts.”

Despite those laughs, “Something I Keep Upstairs” also shines a spotlight on the violence that can lurk within a seemingly peaceful small town, where “people can hold grudges for 50 years” and there’s ongoing tension between year-round residents and summer tourists.

The novel also offers a look at small-town politics and journalism, as well as some unexpected plot twists; the mystery behind the killings in Pierrevert deepens, taking Coleman with it.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.